Weigel

Debate Preview: The Think Tanks Versus the Candidates, Three Rounds, Bare-Knuckled

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 22: People stand on stage during ast minute preparations fo the GOP debate at DAR Constitution Hall on November 22, 2011 in Washington, DC. Eight Republican presidential candidates will participate in tonight’s debate that will focus on national security issues. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

At 8 p.m. ET, the eight Republican candidates who keep meeting debate guidelines will take the stage at DAR Constitution Hall near the Washington, D.C. mall. Their hosts: CNN, The Heritage Foundation, and AEI. Their subjects: foreign policy and national security. Yes, this is the second foreign policy debate in a row.

Helpful guy that he is, Heritage’s Mike Brownfield previewed the stuff the think tanks want asked. The defense budget sequester: “funding for our military could be in jeopardy” if it’s not undone. China: It’s terrifying. Russia: Also terrifying. Obama’s Iraq and Afghanistan strategies: Feckless.

There’s no Gary Johnson around to call for the entire military budget to be chopped into sushi, and no Buddy Roemer around to start rhetorically pepper-spraying China. There are eight other people, who can be divided into three categories.

TIER ONE: YOU BETTER NOT BLOW THIS

Mitt Romney – The author of a book (No Apology) with substantive foreign policy riffs, the proponent of a defense spending plan that would increase that budget while everything else gets slashed, Romney could and should have his easiest time at the podium. There’s nothing about his foreign policy plan that annoys the conservative foreign policy establishment. There is something about Romney that annoys them. In 2008, John McCain took the guy apart over what he saw as unduly pessimistic speculation about the Iraq troop surge. At a debate this year, Romney seemed to be bearish on Afghanistan, and AEI’s Danielle Pletka held his head underwater until he caved. His audience tonight: GOP donors and bosses who want to end the damn primary already, and be confident that Romney gives them no agina.

Newt Gingrich – The author of a few dozen more books than Romney, several of them novels about war; the author of annual books about full spectrum policy reforms; the star of documentaries about American greatness and liberal perfidy; if Gingrich is anything less than a maestro, then he “loses.” Expect him to explain how he’s a “cheap hawk,” but how the supercommittee was a “stupid” idea and the sequestration even stupider. If a moderater tries to nail him on discrepencies between his many, many, many, many statements of What America Must Do, will a confident Gingrich engage, or will he slap the mic out of the guy’s hand? His audience: Hey, convincing the base that he’s a genius isn’t tough, but he needs to prove that every Republican strategist isn’t wrong, and if he’s the last anti-Romney, he’s worth supporting.

Jon Huntsman – He’s betting his campaign on a surprise showing in New Hampshire. He wants to craft a coalition of conservatives tired of Romney, moderates tired of everyone, and independents who want someone they agree with on foreign policy. Ron Paul is doing a far better job of holding onto the last group than anyone could have guessed, but Huntsman doesn’t risk alienating voters with talk of America’s role in its own problems. If he aces the America First argument, he “wins.”

TIER TWO: HEY, HE DIDN’T BLOW IT

Herman Cain – No one expects the fading Cain to know anything more complicated than the simplest talking points. Reagan! Strength through peace and clarity! The right advisers! Reagan, again! Reporters are more ready to obliterate him with gotchas then they used to be. If Cain survives and doesn’t blather – really, if he just avoids a huge, dumb error – he escapes.

Rick Perry – If Wolf Blitzer doesn’t get dosed before the debate, I expect he’ll ask Perry what the hell he meant when he floated the idea of a no fly zone over Syria yesterday. If Perry survives that, he’s got the same goal as Cain.

Ron Paul – The New York Times and Washington Post, who have diligently followed every flavor-of-the-month candidate into his grave, both published “Paul might win Iowa” stories last week. For the first time in a while, there are actual stakes for him. The sand trap is visible from miles away: Blitzer could trap him into a foreign aid discussion that ends with Paul promising to yank money out of Bibi Netanyahu’s hands. He doesn’t want to piss off Iowa conservatives who like him on every other issue.

TIER THREE: HEY, THEY’RE STILL HERE, SO WATCH OUT

Michele Bachmann – Republican voters have basically ruled out the idea of her as commander-in-chief, but she’s still there, still able to answer every question with a version of “I’m on the House Select Intelligence Committee, and…” She’s yet to prove that she can make trouble for a frontrunner, but she has the courage and conviction of someone who considers herself a right-thinking expert with providential inspiration.

Rick Santorum – Same situation as Bachmann, far tighter debating skills, and far more experience as a defense wonk. If he wants to grind down Romney or Gingrich on the details of Iranian nukes or committment to Iraq or oil imports, he can.

I’ll be in the debate hall, where I can see the crowd react in real time and catch moments that are not on camera. I’ll focus on that in a live blog, though fair warning: We have been told that Internet is spotty.