If the election calendar holds, the first binding caucus of the 2012 cycle will be held on January 3rd and New Hampshire is threatening to move it's primary to an earlier date. This accelerated time table increases the importance to the remaining debates because they will shape the narrative for the coming months. The debate will be hosted by Dartmouth and is sponsored by Bloomberg News and the Washington Post. The topic is the economy and the candidates will be seated at a table. The format is a welcome change of pace. Without further ado, here's my preview:Herman Cain: Man of the HourHe's being called the flavor of the month. Like Tim Pawlenty, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Chris Christie before him, he's enjoyed a rapid rise in the polls. Unfortunately, the expectation is an equally rapid implosion. Herman Cain has by far the most to prove in tonight's debate and the format suits him. The informal setting suits the personable radio host and the debate is focused on the economy alone, his strongest issue.Does anyone believe a man with so little experience will lead the GOP? Will his off the cuff style get him in trouble? How well will "The Godfather" stand up to the attacks made by his rivals? These questions give Republicans pause and they will pass on Cain if these questions are unanswered.Mitt Romney: Front Runner With A New RivalNo one is happier with the rise of Herman Cain than Mitt Romney. Cain doesn't have the electoral experience, administrative record or fundraising network of the Texas Governor. Romney probably feels better about his chances against the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza. The economy is his strength and he simply needs to avoid a major gaffe tonight.Romney has been presented with a rare opportunity in the coming weeks to win those skeptical to his candidacy to his side without risking his status as frontrunner. His greatest vulnerability is his slick appearance. He looks like a politician and his shifting positions make him appear unprincipled. Romney needs to articulate what he believes and do so in specific terms. Risking some controversy would show conviction and demonstrate core values immune to the latest polls. Republicans aren't looking for a candidate who agrees with them on everything but they want to avoid a standard bearer who sells them out the moment the polls turn against them.Rick Perry: He's Still Got LifeGravity has not been kind to Mr. Perry. He rocketed to the top of the GOP field upon his arrival and promised to be the conservative standard bearer for grassroots activists fed up with politicians. This was a well crafted message designed by Perry's supporters to win him the nomination and unfortunately it worked too quickly. A hungry base gobbled it up and when they realized he wasn't the conservative super hero they were promised they felt betrayed. Then, Perry compounded his problem by responding to this frustration by attacking the base. People have jumped off the bandwagon as quickly as they jumped on. Perry has his back against the wall and another poor debate will sink his candidacy.To paraphrase Monty Python, "he's not dead yet". Perry has plenty of money in the bank and still is the governor of the nations second larger state. Perry must do well in this debate, but if he can dominate this event he's back in the thick of things. He needs a momentum changing performance as his campaign has endured an incredibly rocky stretch. This means specific plans for America's future. Never-the-less, he is aware of the stakes and I expect him to bring his A-game.Newt Gingrich: Harder to Stop than a Horde of ZombiesForget Mitt the tortoise, how about Newt the zombie? He accused Paul Ryan of social engineering but he kept coming. His campaign staff abandoned him en masse, but he has kept advancing. He's struggled to raise money but he hasn't been stopped. It hasn't been pretty and at times he's pulling himself forward but his opponents are running out of ammo to use against him. It's like Night of the Living Dead. The threat starts out as more of an annoyance but slowly the walking dead overwhelm resistance. Gingrich is slowly putting himself in position to win the nomination by winning a war of attrition.Newt needs to be Newt. He's got a 21st century Contract with America to peddle and his willingness to attack the media makes him an instant hit with the base. His warts are well known and if he continues to turn in solid outings he could find himself as the next flavor of the month. Voters know Newt. If they decide they like him, he'll be the next nominee.Ron Paul: Debate Will Define His CampaignAnn Coulter is fond of saying she agrees with Ron Paul on everything except foreign policy, a sentiment shared by most Republicans. A debate focused on domestic policy is his chance to win supporters to his cause. His signature issue has been auditing/abolishing the Federal Reserve and Herman Cain's status as a front runner should allow him to make this a relevant issue tonight. I am also interested to hear what he has to say about the "Occupy Wall Street" protesters. Paul has more "fight the man" cred than anyone else at the table but he also is a proponent of free markets. The tension between libertarians and simple anti-establishment (in this case corporate establishment) types will be tough. I think this will be a tricky issue for his coalition to navigate.If he has a strong performance, and I'm not talking about a performance where he moves his lips causing his most diehard followers to fall over in awe, he has a genuine opportunity to pick up a lot of supporters. His tendency is to make everything about a failed economic system and I think he'd be better served by talking about meat and potatoes issues. Herman Cain has gained ground by using the word "solutions" over and over again. Congressman Paul should consider borrowing this page from his playbook.Rick Santorum: The Conservative UnderdogA 18 point defeat as an incumbent senator has a way of making people shy about backing you for President. Prior to this defeat, Santorum was a giant killer. He defeated two incumbent congressman, an incumbent senator and survived a difficult race in 2000. Santorum's followers argue he can do this again. Ideologically, his campaign aligns with the sweet spot of GOP politics. He's socially conservative, advocates for limited government and is a defense hawk. In short, Santorum is probably the candidate most like Reagan. I don't think he's been given serious consideration and if the discontent continues he'll get his moment in the spotlight. Michele Bachmann: Fading StarHer supporters will have to forgive me for saying I believe her ship has sailed. She's been in a steady decline since her victory in the Ames straw poll and I don't see voters giving her a second look. Without a gamechanging performance her slide will continue.Jon Huntsman: Media DarlingHuntsman has picked up almost no traction in his quest to be the nominee, but he can upset the apple cart if he is able to give Romney a hard time. He could follow the McCain 2000 blueprint: play the role of maverick, attack the extreme elements of the Republican party, and use cheerleaders in the MSM to push him into the top tier. To win, Huntsman will need to bring Independents and Democrats into the party because he can't expect the support of the traditional Republican coalition. Liveblog?It all depends on the weather. If my tennis match is rained out, I'll be posting live analysis as I watch it. If I'm forced to watch it via my DVR, I'll post a recap later.