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What to Look Out for in Tonight's GOP Debate

Republican candidates will challenge President Barack Obama on foreign policy, an issue they have given scant attention in recent weeks, in a debate Saturday night at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., according to the Associated Press.

Candidates on stage at the CNBC GOP candidates debate.
CNBC.com
Candidates on stage at the CNBC GOP candidates debate.

Consumed by events on the home front, two contenders are fighting to mend damaged campaigns. Texas Gov. Rick Perry blundered in a debate Wednesday, when he couldn't remember one of the Cabinet departments he has proposed to abolish. Rival Herman Cain is battling a series of sexual harassment allegations.

Their troubles leave Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, in a stronger position. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has also seen his fortunes improve, reflected in a CBS News poll released Friday that had him tied with Romney for No. 2 behind Cain.

Also onstage will be Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. The volatile GOP field has seen contenders surge ahead in national polls only to fall behind.

When they have confronted foreign policy, Republicans have criticized President Barack Obama over his efforts to close out the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his support for NATO's intervention in Libya, and his treatment of China's currency, among other issues.

The Obama camp believes foreign policy offers a strong platform for the president, who left Friday on a nine-day tour of the Asia-Pacific region.

Perry, an early leader in national polls, had been struggling to prove to supporters he could still win the nomination. Then he froze onstage Wednesday, when he drew a blank on the third federal agency he would kill as president.

"The third agency of government I would do away with — the Education, the Commerce. And let's see. I can't. The third one, I can't," Perry said. "Oops." (Watch Perry's "Oops!" moment.)

He spent the time since doing damage control with a blitz of interviews and a cameo on talk-show host David Letterman's TV program, where he delivered a Top 10 list of excuses for his mistake. ("One was the nerves, two was the headache and three was, and three, uh, uh. Oops.")

Cain, in his home state of Georgia early Saturday, has struggled to explain a joke about Anita Hill he made in reference to the sexual harassment allegations that have rocked his campaign. During a stop Thursday in Michigan, Cain asked, "Is she going to endorse me?" when a supporter mentioned Hill, who accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings.

The quip drew criticism from Gingrich, who said Friday on Laura Ingraham's radio show that Cain shouldn't joke about harassment.

Gingrich was campaigning Saturday at nearby Furman University and opening his campaign's South Carolina headquarters. The latest to benefit from party conservatives' quest for an alternative to Romney, Gingrich is rebuilding his campaign after his top aides quit in the spring and now has nine paid staffers in South Carolina.

Six Things to Watch

Reuters reported that there are six things to consider before the 90-minute gathering, which starts at 8 p.m. ET and is sponsored by CBS News and National Journal.

— This debate is devoted to foreign policy, a subject that has not received as much attention with candidates focused primarily on ways to get the U.S. economy going. It will test their ability to speak fluently on diplomatic matters and avoid missteps, such as candidate Cain's recent comment that China is seeking to gain nuclear weapons, which Beijing has possessed since the 1960s. This may be the best chance for candidate Huntsman to shine, since the former U.S. ambassador to China has the most diplomatic experience among the candidates. Look for all of them to declare the U.S. must retain the world's mightiest military, since many Republican voters in South Carolina have military ties.

— Iran's nuclear ambitions will get a full airing with all the candidates wanting to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, which it denies developing. They could disagree over whether the U.S. should stand aside and let Israel launch a strike against Iranian nuclear sites, which some experts believe could trigger a wider Middle Eastern war. Frontrunner Romney wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion article this week that he would impose a new round of far tougher economic sanctions on Iran "together with the world if we can, unilaterally if we must." He would back up U.S. diplomacy with "a very real and very credible military option."

— How will Newt do? The Wofford College debate will be the first one in which a lot of attention will be paid to the candidate. Gingrich has been rising in the polls as a conservative alternative to the more moderate Romney. His campaign was declared dead last summer when key staff bolted over what they felt was a lack of focus on important states. With Cain facing sexual harassment allegations and Perry's campaign stumbling, Gingrich has emerged as the latest darling of conservatives. Proud of his intellectual ability, Gingrich can come across as wanting to convince people he is the smartest person in the room. Few expect Gingrich to become the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, but the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives could win early state Iowa and make some noise.

— Will Perry have another train wreck? Look for the Texas governor to tread carefully in this debate. He may have had the worst debate stumble of any presidential candidate in the 50-year history of debates when he forgot one of three government agencies he would try to eliminate if elected president. The 53-second "brain freeze" has been played endlessly on cable news and Perry has done about all he could do with the mental lapse, admitting he erred and laughing about it. Perry freely admits he is not good at debating. Look for him to stick to the broad strokes of U.S. foreign policy and leave the nuance for others.

— Will Cain be forced to discuss sexual harassment? At least four women have accused Cain of unwanted advances when he was head of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s. Cain has denied the allegations and accused alternately the Perry campaign and "the Democrat machine" of leaking the accusations at a time when he was riding high in the polls. At a news conference earlier in the week he offered to take a lie detector test to prove his innocence, but seemed to recant in a Friday interview on the Fox Business Network, saying, "When somebody comes forward and they have a claim against me and they are willing to take a lie detector test, I'll take a lie detector test." Cain did himself no favors with women voters by denouncing former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, as "Princess Nancy" at a CNBC debate on Wednesday.

— Can Romney break loose? The former Massachusetts governor has devoted a considerable amount of attention to foreign policy in an election cycle all about the economy. He has little foreign policy experience but is well briefed. He has led the field in criticizing China and its trade policies and been a frequent critic of Obama. For instance, Romney on Friday quibbled with Obama's plans to remove some troops from Afghanistan next September, saying they should remain through the fighting season at least until December 2012.

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