Monday, November 21, 2011

Republican Primary Debate on CNN Tuesday

The debates keep on coming. CNN will host a debate tomorrow at 8:00pm Eastern. The debate is being advertised as focused on "foreign policy and national security," which is interesting because the previous debate was solely about foreign policy. Judging by that last debate, most of the candidates differ little on foreign policy. On the other hand, the "national security" hook may bring in the subject of illegal immigration, a topic that ignited sparks during the September debates.

The key change that has taken place since the last debate is the shift in perceptions of Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich. The media narrative is that of an ascendant Gingrich and a declining Cain. Unfortunately for Cain, if the debate does focus on national security and foreign policy, it will not be a great opportunity for him. Cain has tended to make gaffes on foreign policy that reveal his lack of basic knowledge about the topic. Meanwhile, Gingrich can speak intelligently on any subject.

Since the candidates disagree so little on foreign policy and national security, and since the candidates' vulnerabilities are on other matters, it will be tricky for low-polling candidates to go on the attack. Last time, they really didn't do it at all. For people like Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry, it's necessary to do damage to the frontrunners to shake things up. Otherwise, they'll simply drift peaceably toward failure.

The one big event that every political observer would like to see is a proper debate between frontrunners Gingrich and Mitt Romney. Gingrich has always avoided tangling with his opponents. No one has ever had reason to attack him before, since he was nowhere in the polls. With the exception of the Perry boom in early September, Romney has never felt threatened enough to go on the offensive. After watching so many candidates self-destruct, Romney is probably even less inclined to attack anyone. Thus, we might have an odd dynamic where Romney and Gingrich are spliting the electorate but remaining passive. That's basically what we saw with Romney and Cain: Romney waited Cain out.

For candidates eager to score some easy points, Ron Paul is an ever-ready punching bag. Paul's opponents may have a contest to see who can show the most righteous indignation when Paul blames America for its foreign policy woes.