Tonight's national security debate, televised by CNN and sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, could be a big event for serveral Republican candidates. Coming right before people will be talking politics with their families over Thanksgiving turkey, it's another pivotal moment as the first nominating contests draw closer.
Newt Gingrich, a former AEI fellow himself, will look to cement his status as the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. This is his kind of a debate. It will allow him to showcase his wonky side, downplay past domestic policy transgressions, and speak in bold, occasionally apocalyptic terms. The debate is also an opportunity for Jon Huntsman, even though he doesn't fully take the Heritage/AEI line on foreign policy, and Rick Santorum, who is a hawk's hawk, to showcase their knowledge.
Herman Cain has seen his poll numbers fade recently and has had to combat allegations that he doesn't know anything about foreign policy (the widely circulated interview with a Milwaukee newspaper showing Cain struggling to gather his thoughts on Libya didn't help). This is a big debate for him tonight. Rick Perry is in the same boat, and he is fighting to remain near the top tier. Michele Bachmann could also use a good performance.
The candidate for whom this debate has the most obvious pitfalls is Ron Paul. He is the only Republican on that stage who has ruled out attacking Iran (Cain seemed to do so as well at the last debate, but who knows what that means). He supports military spending cuts opposed by Heritage and AEI. He will probably be given more than 90 seconds to expound upon his views this time, and the other candidiates may gang up on him.
For Paul, there is a possibility of a repeat of his 2007 South Carolina exchange with Rudy Giuliani. That dust-up benefited both candidates, but surprisingly helped Paul more by galvanizing his young, antiwar followers. The danger for Paul is that last time around, he had nowhere to go but up. This time, recent polling shows him positioned to either make a move into the top tier (at least in Iowa and New Hampshire) or to fall toward the middle of the pack. He is also drawing more traditional Republican support than he was four years ago. What impact will a foreign policy debate have on that?
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