There is little doubt, barring some unforeseen catastrophe in the coming year, the 2012 election will be decided solely on issues relating to the economy. That explains why so little time has been devoted to foreign policy during the Republican presidential debates. But while the failure of the major contenders to prioritize foreign policy is understandable, the void that is developing on questions of war and peace is not. As last night’s debate demonstrated, the Republicans are in danger of throwing away one of their party’s greatest strengths.

The only candidates on display in Tampa with coherent foreign policy approaches were the ones who can’t be elected president or shouldn’t be, like Jon Huntsman or the America-bashing Ron Paul. The failure of either Mitt Romney or Rick Perry to demonstrate a firm grasp of America’s foreign dilemmas or to articulate a strong critique of Obama’s failures abroad is a gift to the Democrats.

For the last few decades, one of the standard tropes of American politics has been the ability of the GOP to portray itself as the party of security and the Democrats as weak on defense. The unpopularity of the war in Iraq erased that advantage in 2008. But Obama’s unwise decision to announce a withdrawal date in Afghanistan as well as his feckless pursuit of engagement with Iran and his decision to alienate allies such as Israel, still leaves the GOP with issues to run on.

Rick Perry was presented with a golden opportunity to show leadership when asked last night to respond to Jon Huntsman’s defense of a policy of abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban. Instead of showing how his approach would differ from that of the president, Perry waffled. In the end, he put forth a position that not only didn’t sound much different from the isolationist tone of Huntsman but could be easily be mistaken for Obama’s stands.

Neither of Perry’s main rivals has done much better in other debates. Romney waffled on Afghanistan during the New Hampshire debate in June.  Pundits have ignored these shortcomings largely because the focus of the debates and the election is elsewhere, but this is a mistake for two reasons.

First is the fact that although Americans are obsessed about the economy, foreign policy and national defense issues remain the first and primary responsibility of any president. Barack Obama may have won in 2008 in no small measure because of a belief  he would transform the world through the power of his personality. But any Republican who expects to be elected must appear as a plausible commander-in-chief.

Second, Obama’s foreign policy failures are giving the GOP an opening they will squander if they nominate a candidate who can’t put forward a concise critique of the administration’s blunders, especially on the Middle East.  Though Democrats will be falling over themselves to deny it tomorrow, the special congressional election today in New York’s 9th district will be a referendum on Obama in which his antagonism toward Israel will be one (though not the only) factor. If Rick Perry or Mitt Romney hope to capitalize on this trend, they had better start making statements that show they understand its importance.