A day after the congressional super committee threw in the towel, the Republican presidential candidates will gather in Washington on Tuesday night ostensibly to debate foreign policy, but also to weigh in on whether $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts should be allowed to go into effect in 2013.
The across-the-board cuts were triggered when the committee was unable to find alternative ways to address the nation’s debt.
(ARCHIVES: NJ/CBS foreign policy debate coverage)
Under the so-called sequestration process, half of the reductions would come from defense spending, and the other half from non-defense discretionary items. Some Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, already have vowed to stop the defense cuts.
The Republican debate, hosted by CNN, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute, will strain the candidates between two important wings of their party. Arguing against the defense cuts risks denting their reputation among fiscal conservatives, but endorsing them will draw the ire of foreign-policy hawks.
Most of the Republican field, to varying degrees, has drifted away from the hawkish foreign-policy consensus that held the party together for much of the last decade, emphasizing instead a commitment to carving the size of government. Republican voters, especially the libertarian-leaning segment of the party, have signaled a far greater openness to defense cuts as they zero in on the country’s now $15 trillion deficit.
Tuesday night's debate, the 11th for the candidates, will also give them another chance to burnish their foreign-policy credentials during a primary season that has been singularly focused on the economy. The candidates drew criticism after the first presidential debate on the subject, hosted last week by CBS and National Journal, for giving vague responses to many questions, and they will have a chance to offer more specificity.
The eight GOP candidates on stage will likely agree on at least one thing: Blame for the super committee’s failure lies with President Obama. Most of them issued statements on Monday doing just that, and during the last foreign-policy debate, most fixed their fire on Obama rather than on their Republican rivals.
Will the comity continue on Tuesday night? The Iowa caucuses are now just six weeks away, on Jan. 3, giving some underdogs, like Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, little time to make up big gaps in the polls. That could spark more fire against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is in the top tier in every major poll, and also against the candidate who has recently surged to the top, Newt Gingrich. The former House speaker was at 24 percent in a CNN/ORC International poll released on Monday, followed by Romney at 20 percent, former pizza-chain executive Herman Cain at 17 percent, and Perry at 11 percent.
Gingrich resuscitated his left-for-dead campaign after a series of strong debate performances and will likely now face closer scrutiny as the latest Republican contender to enjoy a groundswell of support. The debate might also give Cain another chance to reinvigorate his struggling campaign, beset by accusations of sexual harassment and questions of the candidate’s basic grasp of issues facing the country. A video of the businessman’s meeting with editors at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel showed Cain to be struggling to answer a question about whether he agreed with Obama’s policy in Libya.
The candidates also will likely have to respond to the president’s recent announcement of a troop deployment to Australia, a move widely seen as a message to China about the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific region.