On Tuesday night the 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls will take the stage for their 11th primary debate since early May, with 12 more to go before mid-March. This time, CNN and the conservative Heritage Foundation will sponsor the forum in Washington, where the topics will be national security and foreign policy, and just about every candidate has something to prove. The top-tier candidates need to appear ready for that mythical 3 a.m. call and be able to handle any kind of emergency. Those at the bottom who get the least airtime will need to be forceful enough to make themselves heard. Here’s what to look for.
Tonight will be former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's first debate appearance as a frontrunner and, according to conventional wisdom, strong debate performances are what got him there. As rivals Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have hammered away at each other on the campaign trail, Gingrich has, of late, positioned himself as the more mature statesman, but that’s all about to change.
“He’s going to get beaten up and will be the target of the other debaters by virtue of the fact that he’s perceived as the new frontrunner, so he’d better get ready,” says Brian Darling, a political analyst and strategist at the Heritage Foundation. “The other debaters are going to be looking to undermine him. Instead of being on the attack, he’s going to be on the defensive.”
Viewers will also be looking to see if Herman Cain has been doing his homework. Last week he fumbled on a question about U.S. involvement in Libya and linked the Taliban to the country’s new government. According to Darling, Cain has always faced the challenge of proving that he has the chops to discuss foreign policy and sound like he’s knowledgeable; so far, he’s not done a very good job of it. Cain has got to show he understands the issues.
Debate season has not been kind to Perry, who has made several highly publicized blunders. This will be another opportunity for him to try to turn things around. As Darling notes, things can only go up for Perry. If he performs competently, that’s a win because the expectations are so low.
After the last foreign policy debate, both Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann cried foul for being given mere minutes or even seconds to speak. The question tonight is whether they’ll get any of the spotlight, or will it once again focus primarily on Romney, Gingrich, Cain and Perry? The same holds true for Rick Santorum, who has taken an activist’s stand on preventing Iraq from acquiring nuclear weapons. Jon Huntsman, considered too moderate for many conservatives’ tastes, also must fight to be heard.
(Photo: Charlie Neibergall-Pool/Getty Images)