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5 things to look for in GOP debate

By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Reporter
updated 9:24 AM EST, Sat November 12, 2011
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has a rare chance at the debate to highlight his foreign policy experience.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has a rare chance at the debate to highlight his foreign policy experience.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Foreign policy is the theme of Saturday's debate in South Carolina
  • Perry's recall, Gingrich's momentum and Cain's competence are key storylines
  • Another question is whether Huntsman will score points on the China issue
  • A Saturday debate may not attract much interest in this football-crazy state

Spartanburg, South Carolina (CNN) -- The tenth debate of the topsy-turvy Republican campaign will take place at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina on Saturday night.

This time the sponsors are CBS News, The National Journal and the South Carolina Republican Primary.

The theme? Foreign policy and national security, crucial topics that have largely taken a back seat to economic concerns throughout the GOP race.

Here are five questions to consider as you prepare for yet another Republican showdown:

Will Perry remember his lines?

The expectations for Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Saturday night could not be lower.

Gingrich surges in the polls
Top GOP debate moments
Gingrich on getting America back to work

Perry committed one of the most egregious gaffes in American political history on Wednesday, uttering an "oops" when he forgot, for a hard-to-watch 53 seconds, that the Energy Department was the third of three agencies he would eliminate as president.

That came on the heels of several listless and error-prone performances in previous debates in Florida and New Hampshire.

"He doesn't speak in paragraphs, he barely speaks in sentences," said South Carolina state Sen. Tom Davis, one of the state's most prominent conservatives who is uncommitted in the presidential races.

Overlooked in Wednesday's debate was the fact that Perry revealed little new in terms of his economic proposals. He still seems to trading off an energy speech he delivered in Pittsburgh in October and vague promises to roll back federal regulations.

At some point Perry has to demonstrate that he is the kind of candidate who can stride onto a national stage with confidence and outline a detailed vision for the country.

He showed flashes of this during a CNN debate in Las Vegas in October, when he showed a spring in his step and aggressively challenged former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's immigration record.

A shot of 5-Hour Energy and some self-deprecating humor will serve Perry well in Spartanburg.

Can Newt seize the moment?

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has climbed back up to the top of national polls with punchy, combative and detail-oriented performances in the debates.

With burdensome campaign debt and few staffers, Gingrich has counted on the free media exposure of these debates to salvage his campaign after an embarrassing staff exodus in the spring.

There is real buzz around Gingrich in South Carolina. He is drawing large crowds and opening new field offices.

And while Republican insiders are coming around to the possibility that Romney might actually win the state's primary next January -- a prospect few here would have considered just a few months ago -- there is still space for a candidate to emerge a Romney alternative.

A McClatchy/Marist poll released Friday showed Gingrich trailing Romney nationally among Republican voters by just four points, 23%-19%. Businessman Herman Cain, meanwhile, slipped to 17%.

But now that the Gingrich boomlet has arrived, is it here to stay?

While he has a capacious mind and a hunger for creative policy ideas, Gingrich also has a reputation for being irascible and undisciplined.

If Republicans are longing for a candidate with a penchant for quoting Albert Camus and scolding those who disagree with him, they'll have a chance to get a close look at one on Saturday.

How competent is Cain?

In a recent statement defending his campaign from sexual harassment allegations and touting the strength of his candidacy, Cain's campaign claimed that he has "a clear foreign policy vision."

Hardly.

When Cain has attempted to weigh in on foreign policy matters, the results have been close to disastrous.

Earlier this month, he appeared unaware of the fact that China has nuclear weapons, even though the global superpower has had them for more than four decades.

In an appearance on Meet The Press, he was unfamiliar with the term "neoconservative" -- even though the doctrine of democracy promotion was central to George W. Bush's foreign policy agenda and helped set off the invasion of Iraq.

And he said that a border fence with Mexico should be electrified so as to inflict pain on those who might attempt to cross it, a remark he later explained away as a joke.

Cain dismisses his lack of awareness by saying he will appoint smart advisers when he gets to the White House, and seems to revel in his lack of knowledge.

"When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I'm going to say you know, I don't know. Do you know?" he explained in October, when asked if was preparing to be hit with gotcha questions during the campaign.

Yes, some world leaders have funny-sounding names. But if you want to be commander-in-chief, you should actually know how to pronounce them.

Here are two that might come in handy tonight: George Papandreou and Lucas Papademos.

Will Huntsman step it up?

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman dodged a chance to attack Romney head-on during Wednesday's Michigan debate when pressed on whether he thought the former Massachusetts governor was pandering to voters by proposing a tariff on Chinese exports to punish them for manipulating currency.

Huntsman agreed with the premise but would not confront Romney directly on the matter and explained that enacting tariffs could spark a trade war.

He can't afford to do that again, especially at a moment when many Republicans are again searching for a viable alternative to Romney in the presidential race.

But if there is any time for Huntsman to step up his game, it is tonight.

Not only is Huntsman a former ambassador to China, he also served as ambassador to Singapore under George H.W. Bush and as a Deputy Trade Representative under George W. Bush.

And he speaks respectable Mandarin Chinese.

Simply put, Huntsman will be the only candidate on the debate stage with hands-on foreign policy experience and a credible understanding of how China, arguably the world's largest economic superpower, views the United States.

The presidential race has been dominated by questions about the economy, but in a debate about national security and foreign policy, Huntsman has a rare chance to show his stuff.

Pigskin or politics?

Republicans in this state squabble over a lot, but political insiders in Columbia have come to agree on one question, at least: Who decided to schedule a debate on game day?

South Carolinians worship at the church of college football on Saturdays in the fall.

So it's a guarantee that more voters in Palmetto State will be tuning into pivotal games being played by the South Carolina Gamecocks and Clemson Tigers than a policy-oriented presidential debate at Wofford College.

Thankfully for the debate sponsors, both of those games have been scheduled for noon instead of prime time.

Granted, the event is more geared toward a national audience rather than just South Carolina Republicans, but the country has been consumed with college football this week as the scandal at Penn State University has unfolded.

Penn State's hotly anticipated game against Nebraska also happens to be at noon, but a hyped match-up between Stanford and Oregon, two top 10 teams, will take place just as the candidates are debating in Spartanburg.

The upside: Saturday nights on network television have become something of a wasteland in recent years, and debates have rarely failed this cycle to produce great drama.

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