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What to Watch for in Tonight's Republican Economics Debate

The Republican candidates meet tonight to talk economics. Here are five things you should watch for.

Tonight, the Republican presidential candidates gather at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire to debate economic policy. The GOP field has yet to address economic issues with much specificity, so the debate could be a milestone.

To bring you up to speed, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney remains the front-runner, but conservatives don’t seem to trust him—that could change after he's endorsed today by conservative darling Chris Christie, the blustery New Jersey governor. Texas Governor Rick Perry is best positioned to challenge Romney, but keeps screwing up at debates. Businessman Herman Cain is the conservative flavor-of-the-month but lacks the resources and perhaps the basic policy knowledge to challenge the two serious contenders. Everyone else on stage is there on a quixotic mission to sell books/be elected in 2016/push a pet issue.

Here’s what you should be watching for:

1) The most important economic issue today is unemployment, and President Obama has proposed a package of legislation, the American Jobs Act, designed to increase employment growth. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the bill will have a significant affect on the economy (private forecasters say it could create 2 million jobs) and that it would decrease the deficit by $6 billion over the next ten years. The Republican candidates oppose the bill despite the fact that it relies on tax cuts and long-term investment, rather than short-term stimulus, to improve the economy. With a vote on the bill scheduled for today, expect the topic to come up—but can any of the candidates offer a jobs policy that will equal the impact of what’s the president put on the table? We doubt it.

2) The folks at Occupy Wall Street still haven’t gone anywhere, and as long as they’re out in force reminding the media and the country that unemployment and debt are screwing people over, Republican candidates will have to take questions about them and their problems. Based on the field’s comments so far, you can expect everything from snide condescension to outright criticism of the demonstrators, but the big priority will be finding a way to praise the vital Tea Party constituency at the expense of the Wall Street demonstrators. It won’t be easy, though, since early public opinion surveys suggest that the movement has a generally positive impression in the country. The dilemma is pretty straightforward: If, like Herman Cain, they call the protestors “un-American” and win points with the Republican base, will they pay a price among the broader electorate for kicking the have-nots when they’re down?

3) Politically, the most important question is wither Rick Perry can come out of debate without looking foolish. While he became the front-runner the minute he entered the race based on his strong-on-paper relationships with key Republican groups and his record in Texas, a series of lackluster public performances has him on the ropes. Whether or not he can sound on the ball is one question, but on a more substantive front, Perry’s record of job creation in Texas depended on population growth—including immigration from south of the border—cheap housing, regulations restricting bank lending, corporate subsidies, and hiring a lot of new government workers. Will he endorse these policies to the federal government, and if he does, how will it play with Republican voters?

4) This crop of Republicans loves talking about cutting the deficit, but it can be pretty hard to get them to discuss specifics—especially if you think that a budget-balancing deal that is 10 parts spending cuts to one part tax increases still doesn’t include enough cuts, as every Republican candidate has agreed. Because most candidates have exempted the bloated Defense Department from cuts, they’ll need to explain how cuts to education, health programs, infrastructure investment, disaster relief and research will affect the country. Or, more likely, they’ll attempt to side-step that discussion to talk about the importance of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, which will further increase the deficit with little gain in economic growth.

5) The other big economic question on the horizon right now is the European financial crisis. It’s an incredibly complicated situation that involves the interworking of the European monetary union, international capital flows, and regional jealousies between 17 member countries. It could also catalyze a second recession in the United States if the situation goes belly-up. This weekend, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner will be in Paris, France for a meeting with his counterparts from the 20 largest global economies, where the crisis will be at the top of the agenda. Watch to see if the candidates can demonstrate a grasp of the complex crisis, and what they would have the Secretary say on behalf of the United States.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user

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