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The Election 2012 Weekly Report: Gingrich surges, Cain stumbles

The Election 2012 Weekly Report: Gingrich surges, Cain stumbles

This week, Foreign Policy launched its new Election 2012 channel, devoted to following the race for the White House and the politics of foreign policy. It’s an exclusive, comprehensive look at how the candidates view the world — and how the world factors into the U.S. political conversation. With foreign-policy profiles of all the candidates, weekly columns from the Washington Post‘s Behind the Numbers team and Michael A. Cohen, the latest from our lineup of bloggers, and this weekly newsletter — featuring the latest highlights (and lowlights) from the campaign trail — it’s one-stop shopping for a global look at the U.S. election. Sign up here to have it delivered straight to your inbox every Friday morning.

South Carolina showdown

After a long series of debates focused on the economy in which international issues factored only peripherally, the candidates finally met for their first event devoted solely to foreign policy and national security in Spartanburg, South Carolina, on Saturday, Nov. 12. At the debate, co-sponsored by CBS News and the National Journal, candidates squared off on Iran, Israel, China, and the war in Afghanistan.

The sharpest difference between the candidates came over the question of foreign aid — particularly to “difficult” countries like Pakistan. Rick Perry said the foreign aid budget under his administration would “start at zero” and countries would then be judged on their policies. Newt Gingrich agreed, asking why the United States would aid a country that “hid bin Laden for at least six years.”

Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann disagreed, noting Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities and the importance of maintaining a basic level of cooperation with the country’s government. Santorum later accused his opponents of “pandering to an anti-foreign aid element out there.”  

In the end, pundits generally scored the debate as a victory for Mitt Romney, who managed the task of “not making any gaffes and otherwise looking presidential,” as one GOP insider put it.

At FP, Cohen summed up the not-so-great debate and Daniel Drezner gave grades.

The Cain Train(wreck)

Following the Nov. 12 debate, during which Herman Cain managed to exceed very low expectations by appearing somewhat in command of the issues, the former pizza tycoon had a rough week on the campaign trail. First there was a torturous interview with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel during which Cain appeared not only unsure of his position on the Obama administration’s policies in Libya, but unsure of what actually happened there. In the same interview, he suggested that an attack on Iran wouldn’t be practical because “It’s very mountainous.” When asked by a reporter later if his Libya response demonstrated a lack of knowledge of foreign policy, he simply replied “9-9-9″? (Maybe he meant “nein, nein, nein“?) He also told one of the Journal Sentinel’s reporters, “I’m not supposed to know anything about foreign policy. Just thought I’d throw that out.… I want to talk to commanders on the ground.”

Cain followed up this performance with an appearance at Miami’s famed Café Versailles, an important gathering place for Cuban exiles in the city, during which he asked, “How do you say ‘delicious’ in Cuban?” and also made it clear that he had never heard of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which has been in place to handle Cuban immigration for more than a decade.

Not surprisingly, Cain’s campaign canceled an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader after the paper insisted on videotaping the conversation.  

Read FP‘s exclusive profile of Cain’s foreign policy here.

The Gingrich surge

After weeks on the margins of the race, Gingrich seems to be riding something of a surge, climbing above 20 percent for the first time in two polls released this week. Republican voters still seem to be searching for a conservative alternative to Romney, and with Cain floundering, the former speaker of the House appears to be taking advantage. The boom may be driven by Gingrich’s perceived strength on national security. Gingrich got strong marks for his performance in Saturday’s debate: Democratic voters polled by National Journal actually judged him the winner, and in a Fox News poll, Republican voters said Gingrich was the candidate they trusted most with nuclear weapons.

Read FP‘s exclusive profile of Gingrich’s foreign policy here.

Will Jon Huntsman have his moment?

Huntsman is still polling in the single digits, but the former Utah governor and ambassador has launched a major media blitz in New Hampshire, hoping that his brand of competent realism will sooner or later catch on. And when it comes to foreign policy, Huntsman is in his element: He has attacked his rivals, accusing Romney of “total pandering” for his hawkish rhetoric on China. Huntsman is somewhat more aggressive when it comes to Iran, telling CNN’s Piers Morgan this week that “sanctions aren’t going to have much of an impact” on the country and that “it’s likely we’re going to have a conversation with Israel at some point” about other ways to stop Tehran’s nuclear program.

Read FP‘s exclusive profile of Huntsman’s foreign policy here.

Obama in Asia

The president is touring the Pacific this week, with stops in Hawaii, Australia, and Indonesia. On his trip, Obama is promoting a new base for U.S. Marines in Australia and a new Pacific Rim free trade agreement, both initiatives likely aimed at responding to an emergent Chinese military and economic threat. The president’s comments abroad have made their way into the campaign as well. The president noted in an interview in Hawaii that the U.S. government had been “a little bit lazy … over the last couple of decades” in promoting the United States as a destination for international investment.

A Perry ad released on Nov. 16 inferred that the president had been referring to the American people as lazy. “That’s what our president thinks is wrong with America? That Americans are lazy? That’s pathetic,” Perry says in the commercial aired in New Hampshire.

Read FP‘s exclusive profile of Obama’s foreign policy here.

Looking ahead

On Tuesday, Nov. 22, the candidates will meet for another foreign-policy debate, this one in Washington, D.C. With Gingrich beginning to surge in the polls, other candidates — particularly Perry and Cain — who have seen their campaigns hobbled by recent gaffes may be on the attack. FP‘s crack Election 2012 reporters will be in attendance, covering the debate from all angles.

Wednesday, Nov. 23, is the deadline for the congressional “supercommittee” to find $1.2 trillion dollars in deficit reductions. If the committee fails, it could trigger massive cuts to defense spending. Conservative groups — including this week’s debate hosts, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation — have issued a statement on the potential cuts, saying, “The future of America’s national security hangs in the balance.” Defense spending is sure to be a major topic in Tuesday’s discussion.

The latest from FP’s Election 2012 channel:

Cohen argues that, surprisingly, Democrats have become the party of national security. But with a lousy economy, is it enough to propel Obama to victory?

David Rothkopf thinks so. After watching Saturday’s debate, he listed 10 reasons why Obama will get a second term.

James Traub wonders just who Republicans think America’s friends are.

Drezner said conservatives shouldn’t despair about the GOP field’s weakness on foreign- policy issues. A non-despairing Peter Feaver responded.

Following Cain’s tortured Libya answer, Drezner declared a Herman Cain Mercy Rule in effect, vowing to stop writing about the candidate. [We’ll see how long that lasts. -Ed.]

From Shadow Government‘s loyal opposition, Michael Magan urges the GOP candidates to reconsider their blanket opposition to foreign aid.

Sen. Lindsey Graham told The Cable‘s Josh Rogin that the candidates need to “step up their game” on foreign policy.