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What to Expect from the Top Candidates Tonight

As we’ve seen from the string of flavor-of-the-week GOP candidates, the race is still unpredictable, and a single debate can make a big difference. In spite of that, here are some predictions and things to look for from the top candidates tonight:

Newt Gingrich: The biggest question mark is whether the other candidates will actually lay a glove on him. So far, none have shown a willingness to attack Gingrich during the debates, but that was back when he was a surly-but-lovable sideshow that had no chance of actually winning the nomination. Now he’s a frontrunner. There are plenty of foreign policy issues to hit Newt on, including his flop-flops on the intervention in Libya. Expect him to take a lot of punches from Rick Santorum, who hopes to be next in line if/when the Gingrich boomlet ends. Gingrich will also likely highlight the fact that he’s been critical of the supercommittee since Day One.

Rick Perry: This is the first (fully-televised) debate since the “oops” moment, so there will be a lot of eyes on him. According to a senior adviser to his campaign, there’s not much concern there will be a repeat. “He’s terrific in the prep sessions, and very engaged in the material. So we’re not nervous.” He’s not going to back down on his proposal to start all foreign aid at zero, and he’ll likely highlight his China policy (based on American interests, not appeasement). He will also attack the Department of Defense cuts from the failed supercommittee negotiations, which will probably be the standard position for all of the candidates (minus Ron Paul) tonight.

Herman Cain: Cain’s mangled newspaper interview on Libya was so detrimental to his campaign that he’ll almost certainly be asked to address this at some point. And there’s a good chance he’ll have a smart answer prepared. But that won’t solve the larger problem, which is that Republicans think he’s a complete lightweight on foreign policy. It will be hard, if not impossible for him to shake off that perception, and any embarrassing errors that he makes tonight will be jumped on.

Mitt Romney: Romney has repeatedly come out on top in the debates, and he’s shown a strong grasp of foreign policy issues. So there is nothing he really has to prove tonight. Just like the previous debates, he can relax and let the other candidates fight it out.