Detroit Debate: Tests for Romney And Perry, Opportunity For Gingrich

ROCHESTER, Mich. -- The Republican primary debate in Motor City Wednesday night is the first one after a break of more than three weeks for the GOP candidates. The last debate was on Oct. 18 in Las Vegas. You remember. "Anderson!"

It's the ninth debate of the primary. There are still 14 more -- yes, 14 -- on the calendar. And don't worry. More could be added.

It's also the beginning of another intense stretch of multiple debates, seven all together between now and Dec. 19. That's more than one a week. The next one after Wednesday night is Saturday, in Spartanburg, S.C.

The last cluster of five debates -- from Sept. 7 to Oct. 18 -- was Rick Perry's coming out party. That didn't go so well. And tonight will be a big test for him. He needs to show vast improvement if he wants to start turning around the highly negative opinions of him that have been formed by voters, according to polls.

The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll out Monday showed that very or somewhat positive feelings toward Perry among GOP primary voters had gone from 47 percent in August to 33 percent in November, while very or somewhat negative feelings toward Perry among the same pool of respondents had gone from 12 percent to 23 percent.

The other big storyline tonight is Mitt Romney's homecoming to his birthplace and childhood home. And, of course, this is the same city that Romney said should be allowed to go bankrupt in 2008, when the Big Three auto makers were asking for a federal bailout, which they ultimately received. Democrats are hammering Romney for his stance then.

The actual facts of the case are quite nuanced. Romney argued that a managed bankruptcy would make the companies solvent and a straight bailout would lead to their demise. GM and Chrysler actually got both: a temporary bailout from George W. Bush in December 2008 that gave them time to prepare for managed bankruptcy, which led to more taxpayer funds in 2009 from the Obama administration. Nonetheless, many here believe -- like the Bush administration did -- that if no federal money was dished out in late 2008 to the car companies, they would have gone under, and roughly 1 million jobs would have been lost.

This is a big challenge for Romney if he becomes the GOP nominee. Michigan has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988, but the state elected a Republican governor in 2010 and is considered to be in play in 2012.

Wednesday's debate will be a key moment for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) as well. He's getting attention as the next potential alternative to Romney, and got a big wet kiss from the Wall Street Journal's Dorothy Rabinowitz in Wednesday's paper.

"'Substance' is too cold a word, perhaps, for the intense feeling that candidate Gingrich delivers so cooly in debates," Rabinowitz gushed.

Lastly, there's Herman Cain. The controversy over sexual harassment allegations against him continues to dominate the airwaves, and it's a good bet he'll be asked about the issue tonight. But the debate is being hosted by CNBC, and is intended to focus on the economy. So the moderators will probably move on quickly from the question of whether Cain groped Sharon Bialek or not. They will likely focus on whether he is still a viable candidate.

And really, the significance of the last 10 days of Cain controversy boils down to this: he's probably lost his chance at being Commerce Secretary in a Romney administration.