What to Watch For in Tonight's Republican Debate in South Carolina

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The Republican presidential candidates meet Saturday evening for a foreign policy-focused debate hosted by CBS and National Journal

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1. Perry, Perry, and...uh...what was that third one? Oh, right, Perry. Rick Perry's mammoth mix-up in Wednesday night's debate in Michigan raises the stakes for the Texas governor in tonight's face-off. Will he choose the risk-averse path of staying quiet and on the sidelines as much as possible? Or will he step up to try to correct the impression that he doesn't have it together? Just kidding! Perry doesn't really have a choice at all. If he could simply flip a switch and suddenly become a commanding debater, he surely would have done that by now. It seems abundantly clear that turning in a strong performance is not an option available to him. Ironically, he was on course to turn in his strongest performance yet on Wednesday when he face-planted. Barring a brain transplant, he'd probably better play it safe from here on out.

2. Real divisions on foreign policy. This debate is the first of two on the schedule that aim to shine a light on the candidates' foreign policy views, and it could indeed be illuminating. While the two economically focused debates served to illustrate the broad economic consensus among the candidates, there's a notable lack of consensus on foreign policy in the GOP field -- and the Republican Party as a whole -- these days. The candidates show varying degrees of military interventionism: Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul want to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan quickly; Michele Bachmann was a forceful opponent of U.S. intervention in Libya, a prospect Newt Gingrich was in favor of before he was against it. Then there's the issue of China, which Mitt Romney has made a central plank of his economic plan, while Huntsman, the former Chinese ambassador, has accused him of wanting to start a trade war.

3. Do they know what they're talking about?  As a whole, the field is notably short on international expertise, with the exception of ex-diplomat Huntsman. That's led to some memorable blunders, such as an extremely garbled answer from Perry to a question on Pakistan, Bachmann seeming not to know what continent Libya is on and Herman Cain apparently not realizing China has nuclear weapons. It's especially unfortunate for Perry that the debate where he'll be called upon to prove he can remember a three-item list is on a topic he's so poorly versed in. But foreign-policy blunders have afflicted nearly all of the candidates.

4. How do you solve a problem like Newt? The supposedly impending Newt Gingrich surge has been hyped by his campaign for so long that it's unnerving to have to acknowledge that it actually does seem to happening, according to recent polls, whose respondents either have genuinely embraced the next-in-line Romney alternative, like a serial monogamist forgetting the last three breakups -- or else they are drunk with power and just toying with us. In any case, now that the Gingrich surge is officially a thing, expect a renewed focus on the former speaker. One hopes the moderators have taken a tip from the feisty Maria Bartiromo and won't take Gingrich's tiresome, predictable media-tweaking shtick lying down.

5. Oh, right, Herman Cain. After weeks of intense focus on the former Godfather's Pizza CEO, he was oddly not central to Wednesday's debate, especially after Perry grabbed the big headline for all the wrong reasons. There are, however, signs that supporters are starting to quietly peel away from the onetime front-runner. How his rivals approach him should be telling -- if they basically ignore him, it's probably because they sense the air is going out of the Cain balloon.

Image credit: Reuters/Rebecca Cook
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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