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Next String Of GOP Debates Feature Foreign Policy


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. After another week of dramatic developments and changing dynamics, the Republican presidential candidates renew their series of debates tonight. This time at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. For the first time, the debate will be focused on foreign policy and national security, topics relegated to secondary status in previous meetings. But other hot topics are likely to intrude, and for a preview we turn to NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Welcome, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this is the 11th debate, I think. Lots of things seemed to have switched around even just this week. The latest CBS news polls shows a three-way race. Herman Cain leading, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich tied. That is to say Newt Gingrich is in the top three, not Rick Perry.

ELVING: That's right. And the lowest of the top three has about twice the support that Rick Perry has. We should probably point out the Mr. Undecided is actually running second just immediately behind Herman Cain, statistical tie with Herman Cain, so a lot of people have sort of withdrawn from the choosing and are waiting to have their minds made by up something that will happen between now and the event they're planning to vote in.

WERTHEIMER: So if you believe that the last debate, which was on Wednesday, had a material effect on Rick Perry's chances of getting the nomination, is it possible that this debate could rearrange the chairs again?

ELVING: It's conceivable. Rick Perry could hit some kind of a mythical home run, perhaps a grand slam. Not quite clear how the bases would get loaded for that to happen, but he could possibly make some sort of a comeback of that nature. We also could see Herman Cain sprout new wings as a foreign policy expert. He has eschewed that particular area of knowledge up to now, or we could see Newt Gingrich, who is certainly going to attract a lot of new attention from the other candidates I suspect, and the moderators. We could see Newt Gingrich either rise or fall depending on his performance.

WERTHEIMER: The focus tonight is on foreign policy or national security. I would think that Newt Gingrich would have a bit of a leg up there.

ELVING: He certainly has more experience with the issues than most of these candidates, but we also expect to see Mitt Romney strutting his knowledge of detail on this. He has put out a detailed view of his foreign policy at the Citadel in a speech this fall. That's kind of a traditional for Republicans to go to talk about national security, and we can expect some of the other candidates to point out where they differ.

WERTHEIMER: Now, this idea of having a debate on foreign policy and national security; in the days gone by, this would have seemed like a perfectly normal thing for Republican candidates to do because they had two big issues with which they were always leading the Democrats - taxes and national security.

ELVING: That's right. And even as recently as 2008, John McCain wanted to talk about foreign policy whenever he could, to take credit for the surge in Iraq that seemed to be improving the situation there. And in 2004, this was the great debate between John Kerry and George W. Bush, with John Kerry saying we couldn't go on with an individual kind of, if you will, cowboy diplomacy or cowboy foreign policy, and George W. Bush, belittling the idea that we would take some sort of international test before we would act to defend our own interest.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think the president is vulnerable on foreign policy, as he's had considerable success in a lot of these areas.

ELVING: To some degree he's vulnerable. His numbers are not overwhelming on foreign policy as a whole. The NBC-Wall Street Journal poll this week had 52 percent of the people approving of his foreign policy. That's good, not great. And the Iraq policy, specifically getting out of Iraq by the end of this year, that's approved by more than 70 percent. So this is not his area of greatest vulnerability.

That would of course be the economy. He's probably better off making his case to the American people on foreign policy than on any other aspect of his administration right now, especially if you're talking about Independents as opposed to hardcore Democrats.

WERTHEIMER: So do we assume these candidates will keep trying to drag the discussion back to the United States where President Obama is the most vulnerable?

ELVING: No doubt they will. They want to get back to talking about jobs and growth. They're going to want to talk about cutting taxes. That remains the strongest element of their attack.

WERTHEIMER: Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor. Thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.