With just six weeks to go before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, the GOP presidential candidates are squaring off in Washington, D.C., Tuesday night in a debate on national security and foreign policy. Heading into the GOP's 11th major debate, polls show that Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are battling for the lead, with Herman Cain trailing not far behind. Time is running out for the other candidates — including Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Ron Paul — to catch up. Will this "white-knuckle" test of the GOP hopefuls' readiness to confront crises at home and abroad change the race? Here, six important questions the debate might answer:
1. Will anyone attack Newt?
The former House speaker "has been a steadfast adherent to the Reagan rule of not directly criticizing his fellow Republicans on the debate stage," says Nia-Malika Henderson at The Washington Post. His rivals have held back, too. Gingrich is an expert debater, but now that he's officially a frontrunner, somebody might try to take him down a peg. "Time is running short for the other not-Romneys to make up ground," so this might be the right moment "to hit Gingrich, and slow his momentum. Anyone, anyone, anyone?"
2. Will anyone self destruct?
The 2012 general election campaign will no doubt be focused on putting the nation's financial house in order. But to remain "plausible," no candidate can "afford to ignore foreign policy," says John F. Cullinan at National Review. That could spell trouble for one or more candidates on Tuesday, because this field is obviously thin on international experience. "Dismal debate performances alone have already eliminated two otherwise plausible candidates, Tim Pawlenty and (most likely) Rick Perry." With a few "unforced errors," somebody else could fail the commander-in-chief test on Tuesday night, too.
3. Will Herman Cain remember what he thinks about Libya?
"The Herminator has the most to lose," says Mark McKinnon at The Daily Beast. The former Godfather's Pizza CEO "needs to undo the perception that he lacks depth and understanding of foreign affairs." This could be the last chance for Cain, whose poll numbers are falling, to recover from the devastating effects of a viral "video of him seeming to stumble as he answered a question about President Barack Obama's handling of the conflict in Libya," says Paul Steinhauser at CNN. Cain often deflects foreign policy questions by saying he would consult with advisers and generals, but he'll have to do better than that if he wants to redeem himself.
4. Will Jon Huntsman capitalize on his foreign-policy advantage?
The former Utah governor served as President Obama's ambassador to China, so he'll be the candidate on stage with the "most foreign policy experience," says John Avlon at CNN. The moderate Huntsman also arguably has "the best chance of beating Obama," yet he's stuck at 1 percent in the primary polls. At the last foreign policy debate, Huntsman barely had the chance to speak. "In a healthy GOP, it would be his turn to get a serious second look." This is Huntsman's big chance to "showcase his diplomatic bona fides," says Alexander Burns at Politico. And his focus on winding up overseas wars and focusing on our "core" at home might sound good to war-weary fiscal conservatives.
5. Will Ron Paul avoid sounding like a Democrat?
The libertarian Texas congressman has been "correct on fiscal issues," says Tony Lee at Human Events. Yet despite a devoted following, he has not been able to break into the top tier nationally. His challenge Tuesday night will be to articulate his anti-interventionist ideas in a way that doesn't make him sound "like a Democrat." Can he pull it off? If he does, Paul could "expand his universe of supporters in states such as Iowa, where he is statistically tied for first place."
6. Will Mitt Romney win by just looking presidential?
The moderate frontrunner irritated conservatives in Iowa by staying out of the values-oriented Thanksgiving Family Forum on Saturday, says Mark McKinnon at The Daily Beast, "and with Gingrich at the top of the polling this week, Romney needs to regain some ground." But Romney's debate strategy seems to be to "create no new waves." Don't expect any foreign policy surprises from him. Instead, look for Romney to try to "skate through the debate — again — by looking presidential." Will that be enough?