Republicans to Face Foreign Policy Questions at Debate Near White House

Chris Carlson/AP Photo

WASHINGTON – After months of focusing primarily on domestic issues, the Republican presidential field tonight will turn its attention abroad at a debate here in the nation’s capital that will focus primarily on national security and foreign policy .

“Our community doesn’t only want to see their proposals for improving the economy, but also to see how the candidates talk about immigration and what their plans are to resolve that problem that we have,” said Laura Vazquez , an analyst for the National Council of La Raza, the Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group.

Only a few blocks from the White House, where the GOP candidates hope to reside come 2013, the debaters at Constitutional Hall are likely to talk about U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the use of torture and the European debt crisis. Immigration, which has already generated some heated exchanges in this campaign , such as Mitt Romney’s feud with Rick Perry last month in Las Vegas, will likely be another hot-button topic.

“The safest bet is that they will talk about how more resources are needed on the border, how more National Guard is needed, something that hasn’t accomplished anything,” Katherine Vargas of the National Immigration Forum said.

Only six weeks before the first votes are cast in Iowa, the Republican campaign continues to take surprising twists and turns. Perry was the top threat to Romney two months ago, while it was Cain one month ago and now Newt Gingrich . The former House speaker now leads the GOP race with 24 percent support, ahead of Romney’s 20 percent, according to a new CNN poll released Monday.

“What matters is not who is up or down in the Republican race,” said Ricardo Ramirez, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “Because for each Latino family there continues to be the same Republican threat to our economic well-being, the same threat against our access to education and health insurance, and the same threat to our communities of immigrants.”

But many people continue to be frustrated with the nation’s sluggish economic recovery. Even after the Obama administration’s stimulus efforts, the country’s jobless rate remains at 9 percent and the debt tops $15 trillion, with Congress unable to reach even limited agreements on deficit reduction, as evidenced by the “supercommittee” failure announced Monday.

Republicans have taken aim at Obama’s struggles to boost the economy. On the same day the president hits the key primary state of New Hampshire, Romney is hitting the airwaves with his first television ad of the campaign cycle that says of Obama, “He promised he would fix the economy. He failed.”

Despite the economic woes, the majority of registered Latino voters still support the president . Adriana Mikoczi, a Washington resident, said Obama deserves more time to fix the disastrous economic situation he inherited from President George W. Bush.

“There are many things going against him,” she said. “I think he’s trying to do as much as he can, but you can’t do it all in one day. It’s going to take a lot of time and we have to be patient.”

The Latino vote could prove crucial in these elections. Latino voters are the fastest growing voter bloc in the nation, but thus far the GOP has largely ignored them in the primary battle. Making matters worse, some have felt insulted by various incidents, from Cain’s joke that an electric border fence should be built to Gingrich’s past comments that Spanish was the language of the ghetto.

“I think it’s really important that they remember that in the general election, when you have to win over the Latino vote and the independent vote, they have to change their rhetoric on immigration,” Vargas said.

At tonight’s CNN debate, Republicans will get another chance to win over voters. As evidenced by this fall’s events – Perry’s plunge after bad debate performances and Gingrich’s rise after strong ones  - there is clearly a lot at stake.

Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.

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