CNN Foreign-Policy GOP Presidential Debate Crystal Ball

Will Newt school the field? Will Cain forget a ’Stan? Will Mitt skate through again? Mark McKinnon offers predictions for CNN’s ill-timed foreign-policy presidential debate. Plus, join Howard Kurtz and Michelle Godlberg tonight for a debate live chat.

It is ironic that Tuesday night’s GOP debate will focus on foreign policy when the greatest threat we face is the national debt and the two warring parties in Congress can’t even negotiate a domestic peace settlement, at least to decrease the increase in spending.

Questions in the debate—sponsored by two conservative think tanks, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and hosted by CNN—are likely to focus on China, Iran, Israel, the European Union, Afghanistan, Pakistan, terrorism, defense spending, and beyond. But this is the 14th Republican debate since May 5, and it may not earn high viewership. This is part of the problem with the parties losing complete control of the debates. A debate entirely about foreign policy, or any one issue area, is a bad idea. The timing is awful given the relevant domestic issues, such as the supercommittee breakdown, begging for discussion this week, and it will be a crashing bore, as most viewers will choose not to tune in or will bail out quickly.

Public sentiment on America’s approach to foreign policy has not changed much since the years after World War II. In 1947, 68 percent of Americans believed the United States should take an active role in world affairs. Today, surprisingly, that number is almost identical, at 67 percent. But there is some reluctance. Seventy-six percent of Americans today still think we should concentrate more on our national problems and on building up our strength and prosperity here at home.

Finding that careful balance between these seemingly conflicting directives is the challenge for the GOP candidates and the eventual nominee. With the Obama administration’s muddled “leading from behind” foreign-policy position, a clearly articulated vision of America’s role in the world would provide a sharp contrast to the imperiled incumbent.

Here are my predictions for the outcome of the debate:

Mitt Romney: After irritating conservatives in Iowa by declining to participate in the values-oriented Thanksgiving Family Forum on Saturday, and with Gingrich at the top of the polling this week, Romney needs to regain some ground. But “Make No Mistake” Mitt will create no new waves on his foreign-policy positions and will skate through the debate—again—by looking presidential.

Newt Gingrich: The professor will school the field—again. The debate is his to win. No one can beat his encyclopedic knowledge. Gingrich now leads Romney in national polls among more conservative Republican voters.

Herman Cain: The Herminator has the most to lose. This debate will be a true test for this unconventional candidate. Cain needs to undo the perception that he lacks depth and understanding of foreign affairs. Touting his 9-9-9 tax plan will not be an acceptable answer, nor will “I will consult my advisers.”

Rick Perry: The governor grabbed headlines with his zero baseline for all foreign aid in the South Carolina foreign-policy debate. And Perry will likely be the most forceful in his proclamations of American exceptionalism, but he will receive less time and attention than the poll leaders.

Ron Paul: The three-time presidential candidate at least shows the breadth of party views. Paul seems as passionate about ending the Federal Reserve as he is about downsizing the Department of Defense. However, though his message of “noninterventionism” may resonate with the rabble, it won’t with the bulk of Republican voters.

Michele Bachmann: With positions that are never nuanced, Bachmann sparkles when the lights hit her, but she is then often forgotten during the rest of the debate. Can she parlay her position and knowledge gained on the House Intelligence Committee into credibility as commander in chief?

Rick Santorum: In a crowded field, contrast captures attention. And Santorum will be itching to pounce when presented with a position against which he can fight, as he did by disagreeing publicly with Perry’s popular pitch to begin all foreign-aid negotiations at zero.

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Jon Huntsman: The former ambassador will likely attempt to draw Romney out on his China policy. With the rightward tilt of the field on foreign policy—Ron Paul excepted—Huntsman can run to the middle and appeal to moderate voters.

The winner: Whoever doesn’t suffer a brain freeze on one of the ’Stans or manages to distinguish themselves and grab headlines on a topic likely to create slush. The loser: CNN, as it suffers a huge debate-ratings dropoff.