LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Even before landing, passengers in the window seats can see the neon lights of the casinos on the strip. As soon as you exit your plane and step into McCarran International Airport, the business of the place confronts you: Rows of slot machines waiting to accept the visitor's contribution to the local economy. "Double Gold," "Triple Red White & Blue," and "Triple Diamond Deluxe" -- the bright lights, garish colors and clamorous sounds of the machines invite you to take a chance and, what the heck, why not? "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," as the slogan says, and what happens here day after day is tourists losing money that stays in Vegas.
You go home. Your money stays here. If tourists were as lucky as they hoped, Las Vegas would go broke within 72 hours and all the tourists would go home rich. What actually happens, of course, is that the tourists lose far more than they win and yet they keep coming back year after year, losing more in the slot machines and poker pits, at the blackjack tables and roulette wheels -- even at the airport, where they can bet a buck and maybe win a million (but much more likely lose again) before they board the flight back home. And tonight at the Sands Expo and Convention Center on the Strip, somebody's going to lose a presidential debate.
Like every other luckless loser who leaves Las Vegas and tells folks back home he broke even, the losers of tonight's Republican debate (8 p.m. ET on CNN) will pretend they didn't really lose. As soon as the debate ends and moderator Anderson Cooper says good night, campaign proxies for all the candidates will descend on the "spin room" next to the media filing center, where they'll assure clusters of reporters that their candidate -- no matter how hapless -- has just scored a huge triumph. At least one or two of the campaigns will have some legitimate claim to victory, but some will be in a position analogous to the unlucky gambler who had to pawn his watch to obtain cab fare back to the airport, and hopes his wife doesn't notice the missing watch when he finally gets home.
Whatever the spinners may say, however, odds are that the big winner tonight will be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who comes into this high-stakes game with a $14 million bankroll of campaign cash and the political equivalent of a Vegas casino's house advantage. According to the "It's His Turn" principle of GOP presidential campaigns, Romney's the guy who is supposed to emerge the big winner when the chips are cashed in next August at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, so he can play it safe and hedge his bets.
By contrast, the other big money player in tonight's debate arrives in Vegas riding a six-week losing streak. Texas Gov. Rick Perry jumped into the GOP field in mid-August and quickly raised $17 million. But Perry hasn't won a debate yet and his Sept. 22 disaster in Orlando, followed immediately by his stunning defeat in the Florida Republican straw poll, has covered his once-promising campaign with a shadow of doom. Having once led the Republican race -- his standing in the influential Real Clear Politics average of national polls peaked at 31.8 percent on Sept. 13 -- Perry numbers have cratered. A survey released by Rasmussen Reports on Thursday showed the former front-runner now in single digits, in fourth place behind Newt Gingrich, and the same collapse of Perry's support is apparent in polls for early primary and caucus states. The most recent numbers from Iowa show Perry in fifth place there, he's actually in sixth place in New Hampshire and even in South Carolina -- the original linchpin of Perry's strategy -- he has dropped into third place according to the latest poll.
Perry's lost support has evidently gone into the stack of chips piling up quickly in front of Atlanta businessman Herman Cain. Since his impressive debut in a May 5 debate in South Carolina, Cain has had his ups and downs. He finished a disappointing fifth in the Aug. 13 Iowa GOP straw poll and most pundits seemed to count him out until, with shocking suddenness, he zoomed into contender status with his upset victory in the Florida straw poll, where he won more votes than Perry and Romney combined. Cain arrives in Las Vegas fresh off a Sunday appearance on Meet the Press, where he survived an intense interrogation by NBC's David Gregory. Cain is now virtually tied with Romney in the RCP average, and actually leads Romney in the latest polls from Iowa and South Carolina.
Despite his astonishing month-long surge, however, Cain faces numerous obstacles as he tries to turn his momentum into a genuine threat to Romney. Cain's campaign has gone through numerous staff changes and lacks organizational strength in early primary states. The candidate hasn't visited Iowa in two months and the Cain campaign's second-quarter fundraising -- although impressive for an underdog who entered the race with little of what pollsters call "name ID" -- was a fraction of what Romney and Perry reported. Nevertheless, based on reports that contributions to Cain surged to $1 million a week during the first two weeks of October, one Republican strategist told me this weekend that if that pace continues until the end of the year, Cain could raise "Romney-esque money," and have $10 million cash on hand when the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses roll around.
To make that happen, however, Cain must first convince voters (and potential donors) that he really is "in it to win it," as he has insisted from the outset of his against-the-odds campaign. Cain will likely be the target of multiple attacks from his Republican rivals here tonight, not merely from Romney and Perry, but also from other candidates eclipsed by Cain's sudden ascent to political rock-star status. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is arguably the best debater in the GOP pack, and has seen his own poll numbers rise in recent weeks. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann is seeking to re-start her campaign, which has floundered since she won the Iowa straw poll two months ago. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has so far been unable to turn his strong debate performances into strong national poll numbers, but can be expected to take his shots at Cain. Texas Rep. Ron Paul remains the center of his own libertarian orbit, and has nothing to lose by taking on Cain.
"Go down gambling," the jazz-rock band Blood, Sweat & Tears sang some forty years ago. "Sing it when you're running low. Go down gambling -- you may never have to go." Here in Vegas, which turns would-be winners into losers every day, the candidates in tonight's debate must weigh their odds and take their chances. With less than three months remaining before the Iowa caucuses, they may finally be ready to yell, "All in," and put everything on the line.
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