Defense spending likely to dominate next GOP primary debate

Foreign policy is the topic du jour for Tuesday’s GOP presidential debate, but the conversation is likely to be dominated by discussion about America’s defense spending.

The CNN debate, co-hosted by two conservative think tanks, comes the day after last-ditch attempts by the supercommittee failed to yield a debt-reduction deal. That failure will trigger $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over the next decade — half of them to national defense.

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While the Republican candidates are sure to blame President Obama and Democrats for refusing to compromise enough to reach a deal, the presidential hopefuls could find themselves in a difficult spot: All have pledged their commitment to shrinking the size of government, but cuts to defense spending remain a third rail for much of the GOP base.

As some members of Congress weigh blocking the cuts they agreed to during the debt-ceiling deal to stave off defense cuts, the candidates could face a litmus test, setting apart those who refuse to jeopardize the military’s budget from those who prioritize debt reduction. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) might find himself standing alone on the latter side of that divide.

Each candidate’s approach to fighting terrorism will also come under scrutiny as they make their first joint appearance since authorities in New York announced Sunday that a bomb attack had been thwarted and a “lone wolf” suspect arrested.

All eyes will be on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who started November hovering in the high single digits in the polls and has surged into a tie with the race’s longstanding front-runner, Mitt Romney. Some national polls now show Gingrich ahead of the former Massachusetts governor.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), still reeling from a debate on Nov. 9 in which he stumbled over himself trying to recall the third federal agency he wanted to eliminate, must once again fend off wariness that he can’t cut it in the debate arena and would collapse under the weight of a general-election contest against Obama.

But no candidate enters Tuesday’s debate with a heavier load to lift than Herman Cain, whose ongoing sexual harassment crisis has been compounded by a series of gaffes over Libya that have called into question his foreign-policy literacy.

First, Cain had his own Perry-like moment during an interview with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, appearing to shuffle through mental index cards as he tried to recall what had happened in Libya.

“President Obama supported the uprising, correct?” Cain asked the editorial board, lurching into a response disagreeing with Obama’s approach before appearing to become flustered and changing course. “Nope, that’s a different one.”

Four days later, Cain suggested the Taliban — the former ruling power in Afghanistan — might manipulate the new Libyan government, even though no evidence suggests the Taliban are playing a role in Libya’s conflict a continent away from Afghanistan.

Cain — who like all the presidential candidates, other than former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R), has no direct foreign-policy experience — has tried to downplay the issue’s significance, telling the Journal Sentinel he is “not supposed to know anything about foreign policy.”

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Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice took issue with the notion that presidential candidates get a free pass on foreign policy, saying on Sunday that potential presidents must understand the nation’s role in promoting freedom and a balance of power.

“The basics of foreign policy, you can master those during the campaign,” Rice said on CNN. “And it’s important for the American people to know that you care enough about these issues to do that.”

In another foreign-policy debate less than two weeks ago, the candidates took hawkish stances on national security, with Cain and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) calling for waterboarding to be reinstated and Romney and Gingrich insisting military action against Iran be kept an option for dealing with the rogue nation’s nuclear ambitions.

But the candidates also kept an eye turned attentively toward Republican voters eager for drastic cuts to national spending. Perry and Romney suggested foreign aid be zeroed out and each country evaluated for whether an investment of aid is worth the cost. (A Romney spokesman later said the governor was referring only to Pakistan.)

The candidates will likely face follow-ups on Tuesday about whether that strict starting point applies to Israel. Each candidate has fervently praised the Jewish state as part an overture to both the evangelical and neoconservative wings of the Republican Party.

CNN will join forces with the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute for Tuesday’s debate in Washington, which will start at 8 p.m.