SPARTANBURG, S.C. - As the Republican presidential candidates gather here for the CBS News/National Journal foreign policy debate, airing tonight on CBS and CBSNews.com, here are five things to watch:
1. Can Rick Perry clear the low bar of expectations? Almost every debate has been a challenge for the Texas governor, but after Wednesday night's face plant in Michigan, there's really nowhere for him to go but up. He's tried to make light of he stumbles and turn them into strengths, saying he's not slick, that he speaks from the heart. That's all well and good, but the danger for Perry is that voters already have formed an opinion of him--and that based on his past performances, they lack confidence that he is either capable or can persuasively carry the conservative message to victory. Debates matter to voters: In our new poll, 76 percent of Republicans said the candidate's performance was important in deciding their vote.
You don't have to be a championship debater--the pundits and the media never gave the debate points George W. Bush. But Bush clearly passed the threshold that he was qualified to be president. In debates, he was able to connect with voters and communicate his message in a way Perry so far has not.
2. Will Newt Gingrich contain himself? Gingrich is the flip side of Perry: He scores the debate points, and he conveys intelligence and knowledge. His poll numbers, as a result, have steadily risen, and he's now tied for second with Mitt Romney. But Gingrich can go too far and come across as arrogant and distant--the professor who wants to lecture to show how smart he is. That could turn off voters who are looking for hopeful optimism. He should perform well tonight in a debate focused on serious and complex matters of foreign policy. But he can't be overconfident to the point that he seems egotistical.
3. Can Cain get back on message? Considering the blows Cain has taken in the past two weeks, it's remarkable he is still standing--much less holding onto the lead in the new CBS poll. But that poll also shows voters have doubts about Cain's qualifications to be commander in chief, and especially in an international crisis. Romney and Gingrich get points there, while Cain slips to third. He has a huge opportunity tonight to show voters he more than the 9-9-9 candidate, that he not only can present solutions to America's economic problems, but also has a level of knowledge on international issues and can tackle serious foreign policy issues.
4. Will Romney be able to pick up more support? Voters think Romney has the best chance to beat Barack Obama by a 2-to-1 margin, and he has been declared a winner in nearly every debate. Voters say they're confident Romney could go head-to-head with Obama, and it's proven that with his performances. His command of the facts should serve him well tonight, especially when confronted with difficult foreign policy issues. But Romney is playing it safe when primary voters are looking for bold action.
5. Will anyone emerge as the obvious alternative to Romney? For months, Romney has been playing a version of prevent defense--and as any football fan knows, a prevent defense can kill you if your opponent refuses to quit and somehow starts firing on all cylinders. So far that hasn't happened in this race. We've seen a couple of bursts here and there, but no one has managed to consistently score. It looks like Gingrich may be moving into a head-to-head race with Romney, but Cain is still in it. And with Perry's war chest, he could get back in the game if he can turn in a good debate or two--and somehow turn the narrative that while he may be a capable governor, he simply isn't ready to be president of the United States. As Gingrich said on CBS yesterday, this isn't a governor's race--it's a race for President. If Perry can get himself in the right race, starting tonight by showing he can handle tough foreign policy questions, he could still challenge Romney.