Tonight's Debate Unlikely to Settle Anything

GOP voters have yet to make up their minds about 2012.

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The Republican presidential candidates will square off in another debate tonight in Las Vegas, but indications are that the encounter won't do much to clarify the GOP race.

A new CNN/ORC International poll--the most interesting such survey in a long time--finds that two-thirds of Republican voters and GOP-leaning independents aren't firm in their preferences for a nominee. Only one-third say their minds are made up. 

This makes the race extremely fluid. As it stands, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads narrowly with the support of 26 percent of GOP and Republican-leaning voters. Businessman Herman Cain has 25 percent, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry has 13 percent. The remaining candidates are in single digits. [Read: Herman Cain Ramps Up, Builds More.]

Keating Holland, director of polling for CNN, summarized the results of his network's survey by saying that, despite Romney and Cain being virtually tied, the contest isn't really a two-candidate race. It's volatile and could shift again quickly, Holland says.

That's been the pattern. It wasn't long ago that Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota seemed to be a contender. Now she has only 6 percent support, according to CNN. Perry has also faded, and the other hopefuls are mired in the second or third tier. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, once considered a powerful candidate, got nowhere and dropped out. Romney has held firm at about 25 percent but he hasn't generated widespread enthusiasm and has been unable to expand his support. [Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]

Republican voters think their party has a very good chance to defeat President Obama next year and they want to make sure they choose a strong nominee. So they don't want to make hasty judgments, GOP strategists say. [Read: Mitt Romney a Sure Bet for GOP Nomination.]

Unless someone commits a huge error or scores an unexpected breakthrough in tonight's debate or in other tests during the coming weeks, the only thing that will clarify the race are actual votes in nominating caucuses and primaries in about 90 days. That's when TV ads, fundraising, organization, major policy pronouncements, and the sheer grit of the candidates will be determinative. That's also when Republican voters will have to make up their minds. Until then, this race will be a roller coaster.

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  • See editorial cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.