The 2012 Republican presidential candidates take the stage again tonight for the 11th in a seemingly endless series of primary debates.
Tonight’s debate, hosted by CNN, will focus on national security issues, giving candidates a chance at a do-over after last weekend’s botched foreign policy debate. Moreover, a lot has changed in the world in the last 10 days, and the candidates will likely face new questions on defence budget cuts, the Iranian nuclear program, the European debt crisis, and unrest in the Middle East.
The dynamics of the Republican race have also shifted over the past 10 days, offering the possibilities for new plot twists and confrontations tonight. Here’s what to watch out for:
Who will Newt Gingrich dismantle tonight?
For the first time this election season, Gingrich enters tonight’s debate as the frontrunner, and expectations are high for the former House Speaker. That shouldn’t be a problem for Professor Gingrich, who has won back conservative hearts with his solid debate performances and distaste for the liberal media. But he is known to get testy when he doesn’t like a question.
So far, Gingrich has made a big show about not attacking the other candidates, and has focused instead on ruthlessly tearing the debate moderators. Now that he is the frontrunner, the question is whether Gingrich step up and attack his rivals — and whether any of them will be brave enough to turn their fire on him.
Will anyone man up and attack Mitt Romney?
On the campaign trail, the not-Mitt Romney candidates aren’t shy about talking about Romney behind his back, but they are getting increasingly skittish when faced with the real live Mitt. The seven not-Romney contenders have become less and less willing to attack Romney, perhaps fearing a reprise of Rick Perry’s failed attempts earlier this fall. As Romney solidifies his position as the presumptive Republican nominee, the rest of the field seems totally willing to give him a pass, even on easy targets like Romneycare.
The question tonight is whether any of the candidates will break the mould and step up to Romney — and how he will react if challenged.
Can Romney look like a Commander-in-Chief?
Romney has effectively staked his campaign around being the GOP’s economic turnaround man, but it is unclear if any one can actually envision Romney at the helm of the world’s largest military. It doesn’t help that foreign policy is the one area where Obama’s poll numbers are consistently strong.
Democrats are already trying to cast the former Massachusetts governor as weak and inconsistent, and have been rolling out ex-generals for two days to attack Romney for shifting his positions on Afghanistan, Libya, and the war on terror.
Romney is going to have to bring his A-game — and avoid talking about his lawyers — tonight if he wants to show he can go toe-to-toe with the President who killed Osama bin Laden.
What will Herman Cain say this time?
Cain’s foreign policy expertise appears to have actually deteriorated since the last debate, as evidenced by his epic Libya gaffe. The former pizza titan has reportedly been studying hard for tonight’s debate, but two hours is a long time to talk about foreign policy for someone who last week thought Cuban was a language.
Who will win the Iran-hating contest?
All of the 2012 Republican candidates are chomping at the bit to talk about Iran, which they see as the best opportunity to attack President Obama on his foreign policies. With the exception of Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, all of the candidates have laid out seriously hawkish platforms for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat, most of which involve using the military option. Also watch to see if the candidates can make their Iranian positions jive with their stances toward Pakistan.
The debate, which is co-sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, starts at 8 p.m. tonight in Washington, D.C., and will be moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. We’ll be liveblogging, so check back for updates!
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