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What to watch for in GOP debate

When Republicans attack President Obama, as they inevitably will in tonight's latest presidential primary debate, they'll be doing so barely a few hundred yards from where the incumbent sits at the White House.

Yes, it's time for another meeting of the leading contenders for the GOP nomination -- the 11th nationally-televised session in just over half a year. But this time, the Republicans who regularly decry the excesses of Washington will be doing so from the nation's capital, at the DAR Constitution Hall just across the street from the White House grounds.

Their proximity to the office they covet, and the dwindling time before the first votes are cast in the 2012 race, may add a new degree of urgency to the proceedings.

The debate, hosted by CNN in partnership with the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, is meant to focus on national security issues, though organizers say the economy also will be part of the conversation.

Here are some of the themes likely to be driving the two-hour contest.

Commander in chief material?

No candidate has established a clear polling advantage in the GOP race. And some of that uncertainty stems from the fact that this is the rare Republican race without a clear elder statesman in the field.

Team Romney has tried to make their candidate the inevitable nominee -- again this week, they invited a direct confrontation with Obama.

But on the types of issues that will be central to Tuesday night's debate, voters consider Mitt Romney to be weaker than Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker who has positioned himself as the nerdy Washington insider.

In a CNN poll conducted late last week, 36% of likely Republican voters said Gingrich is most qualified to be commander-in-chief, compared to 20% for Romney. Asked which candidate is most likely to understand complex issues, 43% chose Gingrich while just 18% chose Romney.  Asked who would best represent the United States to the world, 30% said Gingrich and 26% said Romney.

A poll by Quinnipiac University had similar results. Who would best handle foreign policy? Forty-six percent said Gingrich, 16% said Romney. Who has the knowledge and experience necessary to be a good president? Forty-eight percent chose Gingrich, 22% chose Romney.

Even as he tries to spar with the current commander-in-chief, it's clear Romney still has not sealed the deal with Republican voters.

Newt the frontrunner

Gingrich has endeared himself to a part of the Republican electorate with his willingness to chide debate moderators for questions he considers frivolous or "gotcha."

So, does he keep up the instigator act now that polls show him at or near the top of the Republican field?

It will also be interesting to see whether his rivals try to challenge Gingrich now that he's surged past them. In earlier debates, they'd been quick to praise him -- remember when then-frontrunner Rick Perry said his perfect VP candidate would a hybrid of Gingrich and Herman Cain?

But they'd then risk running afoul of Gingrich's other debate staple, a plea to avoid any friendly fire.

Avoiding the oops

Let's face it -- these debates have hardly been showcases for the GOP brand. Rick Perry's memory lapse a couple weeks back showed how one brief moment could be hard to recover from.

Perry was able to make light of it in the days that followed and referred jokingly to the moment at another debate that weekend. But this will be his biggest stage yet and there surely will be more viewers tonight than that sleepy Saturday night affair.

The same is true for Cain. His struggle to answer a question about his position on Libya was so damning because the question was so simple, the kind of subject matter that should have been covered in Candidate 101. He will surely get a second chance tonight in the national security arena.

 The sequester question

Congress may have left town, but the stench of the supercommittee failure still lingers.

Candidates can be expected to hammer Obama for pledging to veto any effort to undo the so-called "trigger," the automatic cuts to domestic and defense spending that are now mandated because of the super committee's inability to come up with its own deficit plan.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had warned that the Pentagon cuts would be debilitating to the nation's armed forces. But he backtracked after Obama's statement in the briefing room last night.

"If Congress fails to act over the next year, the Department of Defense will face devastating, automatic, across-the-board cuts that will tear a seam in the nation's defense," he said. "Despite the danger posed by sequestration, I join the president in his call for Congress to avoid an easy way out of this crisis."

The sequester issue gives Republicans a chance to attack Obama on two fronts, for in their view failing to show leadership on the defense issue and for undermining the nation's security in the process.

Loose ends

The candidates for the most part struck a hawkish tone on the questions they faced in the last foreign policy-focused discussion more than a week ago in South Carolina. But there were some key differences, and some topics where further discussion may have been warranted.

The clearest contrast among the candidates was on the issue of waterboarding. John McCain blasted his fellow Republicans for saying they would support the use of "enhanced interrogation tactics" in prosecuting terrorists. Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman clearly came out against the practice. Romney was able to avoid without answering.

Also watch for sparks to fly over Rick Perry’s proposal to zero out foreign aid to all countries – including Israel and Pakistan – an idea that has riled Michele Bachmann in the past.

Iran is another common flashpoint, and the Obama administration's announcement that it will seek new sanctions could make for some interesting viewing as the GOP candidates try to position themselves as more hawkish than the president.

 

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