Seven Republican presidential prospects (most of them announced as such) will debate for two hours tonight.
In that time, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul. Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum—yes! the Rick Santorum!—will jockey for a position in a race where everyone who is still trying to figure out whether a candidate who is not present, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, might make the race.
So it is that, no matter what the candidates on stage say, the big “news” from this debate probably involve what Sarah says about it.
That’s because, in addition to their obscurity, the debaters will bring to the stage a reticence when it comes to mentioning the elephants in the room at the Grand Old Party.
Here are some issues and ideas the Republican contenders won’t be leaping to address tonight:
1. Will You Endorse Paul Ryan’s Budget As It is Written?
No Republican presidential candidate wants to go the way of Newt Gingrich and get chided for showing insufficient deference to the GOP’s latest “golden boy.” So, while all the contenders know that the Ryan plan is a failure practically and politically—even Bachmann, who backed it in the House, now claims she’s for the proposal with an “asterisk”—they won’t say that.
By the same token, none of the candidates will fully embrace a proposal to end Medicare as we know it and prepare for an assault on Social Security. To do so would guarantee defeat in November 2012, and, despite appearances to the contrary, these candidates really would like to occupy the Oval Office.
2. Should President Obama Be Censured (Maybe Even Threatened With Impeachment) for Launching an Undeclared War With Libya?
Republican presidential contenders would dearly love to get in some Obama-bashing. But it does not work to hold him to account for his undeclared war-making. It’s not that the president’s Libya mission is legitimate; the problem is that calling out Obama on this fight raises the question: Where were you when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney led us into an even more physically, emotionally and economically devastating war of whim with Iraq?
Only Ron Paul could come close to answering this question without exploding the inconsistent meter. (In fairness, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson could also answer ably; but anti–drug war candidate has been excluded from this debate under CNN’s don’t-let-this-get-interesting rule.)
3. Isn’t the Whole Point of This Debate to Destroy Mitt Romney?
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s presidential run has always prompted the question: “Why?” Plodding and predictable, Pawlenty was a forgettable governor and his presidential candidacy has always lived in the shadows of what passes for a GOP frontrunner, former Massachusetts Governor Romney. But on the eve of this debate, Pawlenty debuted the term “Obamneycare”—a pitch-perfect reference to the Massachusetts health-care reforms that Romney implemented as governor, and that mirror the reforms President Obama and the Democrats outlined at the federal level.