Going into tonight’s GOP debate at Dartmouth College (where I am a faculty member), the challenge for Rick Perry, as TAP’s Jamelle Bouie notes, is to reassure nervous elites that he’s a capable national-level candidate while attracting support from anti-Romney conservatives who have swung toward Herman Cain:

Romney is leading the field with 38 percent support among likely voters in the New Hampshire presidential primary. Herman Cain takes the second place spot with 20 percent of the vote, and Ron Paul finishes third with 13 percent of the vote. The remaining candidates, including Rick Perry, poll at 5 percent or less.

This obviously isn’t great news for the Texas governor. But it’s not terrible news either. The simple fact is that Herman Cain isn’t a serious candidate. His policy knowledge is slim and his political organization is nonexistent. Yes, he’s traveled to a few primary states, but that has more to do with book sales than it does with actually running for president. Sooner or later, his bubble will pop, and he’ll fall back down to earth.

But while Cain’s candidacy is a sideshow, his constituency is not. Cain represents the largest faction in the anti-Romney wing of the Republican base, which is as large—if not larger—than Romney’s own base of support. In New Hampshire and elsewhere, these voters have attached to Cain for lack of a better choice.

To put this another way, Herman Cain has sucked the oxygen out of Perry’s bid for anti-Romney conservatives. As such, Perry’s task for tomorrow’s debate and the weeks ahead, is to reassure Republicans of his conservative credentials and re-establish himself as the real alternative to Romney. Part of that, as I noted earlier, will involve attacks on Romney’s record. But part of it, I think, will require Perry to gently show conservatives that while Herman Cain is a great guy, he’s not quite presidential material.

The problem is that Perry is uniquely ill-suited to go after Cain. First, the former Godfather Pizza CEO’s primary vulnerability is his lack of detailed policy knowledge, but the same is true of Perry. In addition, it would be awkward for Perry to target Cain so soon after the controversy over a racially offensive term painted on a rock at a hunting camp leased by Perry and his family. Cain, the only African American running for the GOP nomination, said afterward that Perry showed “a lack of sensitivity.”

For these reasons, it’s likely that Perry will instead focus his fire on Romney as he did at the Value Voters Summit and in an online video. He has to hope that other contenders will take on Cain in the hopes of attracting some of the gadfly candidate’s supporters once his boomlet dissipates.

What’s been strange to observe, though, is how Perry’s handlers and allies have failed to play in the expectations game in a savvy way. Rather than downplaying his likely performance in the debate tonight, they seemed to promise a major improvement in a New York Times story on Perry’s struggles that included an unfortunate comparison of the candidate to a “tired puppy.” By comparison, expectations for George W. Bush were set so low that it was considered a victory when he “survived” his first debate in 1999 “without any major gaffe” and the AP later reported that “Even the Texan’s allies sounded underwhelmed” by his early debate performances. If Perry’s camp is smart, they will avoid creating an expectation of a dramatic turning point that he is unlikely to deliver.

Going forward, Perry’s principal challenge is to stay viable so that more elites don’t defect to Romney. He is well-funded and has a favorable primary calendar. Regardless of his standing in national polls, he has a decent chance to mount a comeback against Romney because support in multi-candidate primaries is so fluid. When there are relatively minor ideological differences between candidates, it’s possible to make rapid gains as voters shift to their second or third choices for strategic or stylistic reasons. If Perry can adapt to the rigors of a national-level campaign, his odds of consolidating enough of the anti-Romney vote to win the nomination are significantly better than the current Intrade estimate of 18.9 percent.

[Cross-posted at Brendan-Nyhan.com]

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.