I predict Gingrich to be the winner and Cain to develop eye tics and a speech impediment.
Much to gain and lose for Gingrich, rivals in CNN national security debate
By Paul Steinhauser, CNN Deputy Political Director
updated 3:10 PM EST, Tue November 22, 2011
Republican presidential candidates take on national defense, the economy, international relations and terrorism issues in the CNN Republican National Security Debate in Washington, moderated by Wolf Blitzer at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday on CNN, the CNN mobile apps and CNN.com/Live.
Washington (CNN) — The Republican presidential candidates face off Tuesday night just a few blocks from the place they all hope to call home: the White House.
The candidates share the stage at DAR Constitution Hall, just down the street from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. CNN is teaming up with leading Republican-leaning think tanks Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute to host a debate that focuses heavily on national security and foreign policy issues, but which will also include top economic concerns, including the failure of the congressional super committee to find agreement to cut $1.2 trillion from the country’s long-term debt.
The debate is the 11th major showdown between the Republican candidates and the first in 10 days.
It’s also the first in which former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is firmly among the front-runners in national surveys, deadlocked with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the top spot in the nomination race.
According to a CNN/ORC International Poll released on the eve of the debate, 24% of Republican and GOP-leaning independent voters say they are most likely to support Gingrich for their party’s nomination, with 20% saying they back Romney, who is making his second bid for the presidency.
Gingrich’s four-point margin over Romney is within the survey’s sampling error. A CNN poll released one week ago had Romney at 24% and Gingrich at 22%. Gingrich was at 8% in a CNN poll in October.
Gingrich’s campaign was left for dead by many in May and June, after a number of controversies that spurred some of his top advisers and staffers to quit, and that left the campaign coffers in the red. But the former House speaker has performed well in the 10 previous major GOP presidential debates this year, acting as the elder statesman while many of his rivals for the nomination attacked each other.
“It seems likely that Gingrich’s performance in past debates has helped him — 43% say he is the Republican candidate who best understands complex issues, more than double the number who say that about Romney,” CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said.
The candidate sees it the same way.
“I entered this race with a huge amount of background story, some public, some private, which led people initially to think, ‘Well, I’m not sure I want him.’ And part of what the debates have done is they’ve been able to see me without editing, and, therefore, they’ve been able to say, ‘Gee, that’s not the guy I thought he was,’ ” Gingrich recently told CNN’s Piers Morgan.
Gingrich gets another chance to score points with Republican voters at the CNN debate, which comes just six weeks to the day before the Iowa caucuses, the first contest in the presidential primary and caucus calendar.
And the debate, the second in a row to spotlight national security and foreign policy issues, seems to be in Gingrich’s wheelhouse. According to the CNN poll, 36% of Republicans say Gingrich is most qualified to be commander-in-chief — 16 points higher than Romney.
But the rise in the polls has brought Gingrich more scrutiny — he has already been peppered with questions from reporters the past two weeks regarding his lucrative consulting for Freddie Mac, the troubled mortgage giant that was bailed out by the federal government. He was in the spotlight over the weekend for controversial comments over altering child labor laws and his criticism of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.
GOP strategist and CNN contributor Alex Castellanos calls Gingrich, “a Roman candle — soaring high, but only briefly.”
“As Newt Gingrich becomes more relevant, so will his many faults. Newt is a great candidate, as long as he is not in contention,” said Castellanos, who was a top media adviser in Romney’s 2008 bid but is not taking sides this cycle.
Gingrich and Romney will be joined on stage by businessman and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and radio talk show host Herman Cain; Texas Gov. Rick Perry; Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who is making his third run for the White House; Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota; former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania; and former Utah Gov. and former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.
The question is which of Gingrich’s rivals will use the Tuesday debate to fire away at the new front-runner. One possible candidate is Bachmann, who in the past few days has criticized Gingrich’s commitment as a pro-life candidate.
Rich Galen, a GOP political analyst who advised Fred Thompson during his 2008 GOP presidential bid, thinks it will be Bachmann, who entered the race in the summer and surged to the top of polls before settling back down into single digits.
“We’ll watch to see how Gingrich responds — swatting her away like a fly might be the legitimate response, but probably not the polite response,” said Galen, author of the online column Mullings.com.
Galen served as communications director for then-House Speaker Gingrich’s political shop in the 1990s, but is not taking sides in this nomination battle.
Also in the spotlight at the debate will be Cain, who has a tendency to answer foreign policy questions at debates by saying that he would consult with the experts or the generals. Video of him seeming to stumble as he answered a question about President Barack Obama’s handling of the conflict in Libya last week during an editorial board meeting with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel went viral online. Cain could use a strong performance on Tuesday night to deflect criticism that he is inexperienced on such issues as national security and foreign policy.
Perry, who soared in the polls after he jumped into the race in August but dipped after a series of debate stumbles, also has a lot to prove. And with border security and immigration reform sure to come up, Perry could be in the spotlight, since those are issues where the Texas governor stands apart from the rest of the field.
The showdown could benefit those candidates with more experience in foreign policy and national security.
Castellanos said the only candidates on the stage who can speak credibly about foreign policy are Romney, Gingrich, Huntsman and Santorum.
“This should be their night,” said Castellanos, who was also a top media adviser to the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. “Santorum doesn’t have presidential stature, so that leaves three. Expect the same, solid, impressive performance as usual from Romney, but this is Huntsman’s opportunity to shine. If Huntsman can bigfoot Romney or Gingrich on a foreign policy question, he can move into the set of serious contenders.”
But Galen disagreed, saying, “It’s none of their strong points.”
The debates have proven extremely influential this cycle, with performances having a direct impact on polls. The next debate after the CNN showdown is not until December 10, which means a candidate who suffers a major gaffe may have to wait 2 1/2 weeks for redemption.