5 Keys to the CBS/National Journal GOP Debate in South Carolina

Barely (or not at all) recovered from their Michigan debate, the candidates reconvene in South Carolina tonight. From how Perry and Cain can survive to Gingrich’s possible dominance, David A. Graham on what to watch.

11.12.11 5:09 AM ET

It’s that time again: just three days after clashing in Rochester, Mich., the Republican field will gather Saturday for a debate on foreign policy. The latest meeting, sponsored by CBS and National Journal, is in Spartanburg, S.C., at Wofford College. What will the highlights be? Here are five key issues to watch.

1. How Much Airtime Will Foreign Policy Get?

Sure, the debate is being billed as focusing on national security—but don’t believe it. Even in a standard presidential election, foreign-policy issues are at best secondary in the minds of most voters who aren’t members of the Council on Foreign Relations. But the tendency is even more pronounced this cycle, as the continued struggles of the economy preoccupy voters and candidates alike. Expect candidates to try to spin their answers toward domestic concerns—Ron Paul in particular will couch any answers in terms of the savings the U.S. could gain by withdrawing troops abroad—or simply ignore questions overall.

2. How Much Flak Will Obama Take for His Netanyahu Gaffe?

Back in the spring, the GOP thought it had a wedge issue: President Obama had taken the U.S. into a questionably legal intervention in Libya. It was costly. It was dragging on longer than expected. And worst of all, he’d let the French drag us in, “leading from behind” rather than having the courage of his convictions. But with Muammar Gaddafi dead and NATO withdrawing from Libya, that line of attack is weaker; candidates like Rep. Michele Bachmann, who prominently opposed American involvement, would probably rather not talk about it, given the widespread happiness at the tyrant’s death. But there’s still plenty to be said about how to handle ongoing unrest in Syria. Expect quite a few jabs at Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and at his hot-mic gaffe, where he was overheard bashing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—that’s Grade A red meat for Israel-loving Republican voters.

3. How Many More Candidates Will Bash China?

They might hold more than $1 billion in U.S. sovereign debt, but that doesn’t mean the Chinese aren’t a ripe target. Building on Wednesday’s economic debate—in which frontrunner Mitt Romney more or less threatened to slap a slew of protective tariffs on Chinese products, the candidates are likely to make plenty of noise about maintaining American economic superiority and military hegemony over China. Only Jon Huntsman, the former ambassador to that country, dared criticize Romney, and then only in the most milquetoast way he could. It’s just noise, though: a President Romney, Cain, Perry, or Gingrich would likely be forced to act in a far more conciliatory manner with the rising giant once in office.

4. How Dominant Will Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul Be?

The trio that matters tonight: Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul. With a nearly unblemished record so far, don’t expect Romney to change much. He’ll stick with blandly conservative positions, try not to mix it up with his opponents too much, and hope to appear presidential. The biggest stumbling block to that will be Gingrich, whose poll numbers are perking up at the expense of Rick Perry and Herman Cain. Unlike those two, however, Gingrich has some knowledge on overseas matters—and seldom misses an opportunity to demonstrate what he knows. He will likely try, and may succeed, in drawing some blood. And Paul’s always fascinating to watch talk foreign policy. Fiercely opinionated and principled on matters of foreign intervention, and radically removed from the Republican orthodoxy, he can reliably be expected to turn the conversation in unexpected directions, and rile up his opponents by challenging conventional GOP wisdom on American gunboat (and warplane) diplomacy against Iran and elsewhere.

5. How Can Rick Perry and Herman Cain Come Out as ‘Winners’?

Where to start? It seems likely that Rick Perry can’t do worse than his humiliating spell of forgetfulness Wednesday, but one hesitates to say so, since most observers said he’d already hit his debating nadir even before forgetting which agencies he’d eliminate. Herman Cain’s star appears to be falling, too: as the trickle of embarrassing revelations and missteps—most recently, a painful Anita Hill joke—his improbably high numbers have finally started to decline. Both men could use a strong debate Saturday night, but the topic virtually ensures they won’t. Perry can talk border security with Mexico, but hasn’t shown much chops beyond that on foreign affairs. Cain, meanwhile, has bragged about his ignorance of the premier of “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.” The best the duo can hope for is avoiding major missteps and limping along to the next stage.