GOP Presidential Candidates Prepare To Debate In Nev.

The Republican candidates meet for another debate this evening, this one in Nevada. It will be the last in a series of six debates since late fall. In that time, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has firmly established himself as the man to beat for the GOP nomination. Melissa Block talks to NPR's Mara Liasson for more.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Tonight, voters get another chance to watch the Republican presidential candidates debate. This time, they'll meet in the early caucus state of Nevada and this debate follows a series of polls showing businessman Herman Cain surging to the top of the pack.

Joining me now to talk about the Republican field and tonight's debate is NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. And, Mara, let's start with Herman Cain. He's got a bare bones campaign organization, never held elective office before. What do you think? Is he at a point now where, tonight, the other candidates have to start challenging him?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Yeah, I do think that he is because for all those other candidates who are hoping to be the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, who's still the front runner, Cain is standing in the way. And right now, he is the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, although not necessarily one with the resources to go the distance.

That would be Rick Perry if he can get himself out of the slump that he's in. He is trying. He's got new positive ads up on the Web. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, who still sees Perry as his true rival, is out with a negative Web ad blasting Perry's economic record in Texas, saying one-half of all new jobs in Texas went to illegal immigrants.

We have Herman Cain saying he'd build a fence, maybe an electrified one, along the border.

BLOCK: And then walking back on that.

LIASSON: Yes. And then walking back a bit. We'll see tonight in Las Vegas, Nevada, part of the country where immigration is a very big issue, if anyone challenges Cain on that or if they all try to outdo him and show how tough they can be on illegal immigrants.

BLOCK: You mentioned resources, Mara. If Herman Cain cannot raise the money that he needs and Rick Perry can't climb out of the hole that he seems to be in, that would seem to leave Mitt Romney winning the nomination without, maybe, a long drawn out primary battle. Is that a good thing for Mitt Romney?

LIASSON: Well, that's a good question because usually candidates don't want a bloody, drawn out primary where they end up beat up and broken. They don't have enough time to prepare for the general election. But a vigorous primary battle can make the eventual winner stronger than he might have been otherwise. You know, John Kerry never had much of a fight in 2004. His weaknesses weren't exposed and addressed.

Barack Obama had a very big fight with Hillary Clinton all the way to Puerto Rico, and it did make him a better candidate and he was able to leave behind the building blocks of a campaign infrastructure in many more states than he would have if it had all been wrapped up after South Carolina. And that's not to say that Obama wouldn't have beaten John McCain with a short primary. But sometimes being an underdog, taking a punch and delivering one, having to slay a dragon does toughen a candidate up.

BLOCK: Mara, there's been a lot of talk about Mitt Romney hitting a ceiling, in a sense, in public opinion polls. He's showing support in the low 20s. He doesn't seem to get higher, even as support for some of these other candidates that we've been talking about goes up and down. What would it take for that to change?

LIASSON: Oh, I think that can change. When people start actually voting, it could change. So far, the entire Republican race has been debates and polls. And soon we're going to get paid advertising on television, not just the Web. But it's also true that Romney's support, even though it's kind of low, it's consistent across the board. All kinds of Republicans think he would be a good candidate. He's also the second choice of more Republicans than any other candidate, which suggests that eventually, as the other candidates drop out, some of that may go to him.

In the latest Wall Street Journal poll, 60 percent of even very conservative voters said they had overall positive feelings about Romney. And a new Pew poll which asked Republican voters to say what word came to their mind when they thought of the candidates, Romney's words were mostly positive, although the top word for him was Mormon. And I'll bet you can't guess what the top word was for Herman Cain.

BLOCK: Pizza?

LIASSON: I'll give you a clue. It's a number.

BLOCK: Nine, nine, nine.

LIASSON: That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: OK. Mara, let's finish by talking about the debates again. The polls, as we've said, have been jumping around a bit. Debates do seem to be having an impact on what we're seeing in those polls. What do we know about who's actually watching these debates?

LIASSON: A lot of people are watching them, 6.1 million people watched the FOX News Orlando debate on television. And that compares to September 2007, almost exactly four years ago, when 3.2 million people watched a FOX News Republican debate in Orlando, so that's twice as many. Obviously, that includes Democrats because there's no contest on the Democratic side this year, but it also shows how energized and excited and interested Republicans are this year.

BLOCK: OK. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

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