CNN Republican Debate
Republican presidential candidates (L-R) former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), U.S. Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), Texas Governor Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, businessman Herman Cain, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman wave after their introductions during the CNN GOP National Security debate in Washington. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

It's tough being a hawk with a thinning wallet.

It was a conundrum Republicans faced Tuesday evening in a national security-themed debate at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., broadcast on CNN.

The gathering did little to change the dynamic of a race that has seen a carousel of candidates tested as a possible better-option to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich arrived as the latest candidate du jour, and largely justified his new place among the leaders.

But the debate did not brandish frontrunners so much as it confirmed the precipitous plummet of two former darlings, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain.

Despite a national consciousness focused on domestic issues, substantive events are taking place outside the United States: Iran cruises towards acquiring nukes; unrest has re-emerged across the Middle East, including Syria and Egypt; America's foreign policy choices have direct domestic economic implications; and the eurozone crisis threatens an already tepid recovery.

Iran's reported growing nuclear capability brought contentious ideas over to how to subdue a sovereign nation seen as an obvious threat to the U.S. (The parallels to the Iraq War buildup were implied, but never stated).

The subject seemed made for Gingrich, whom moderator and CNN host Wolf Blitzer sought out, saying, I know you studied this.

Gingrich called for wholesale regime change in Iran through crippling its gas supply and bombing its only refinery. If all measures fail, Gingrich said he would bomb Iran's weapons facilities.

The other candidates offered up a mixed bag of sanctions and support for Israel, with the notable exception of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.

But the candidates' answers showed the dynamic has changed in America. In an era when unemployment, stagnant wages and federal budgetary concerns dominate the headlines, national security issues can only draw esoteric statements and passive solutions. The battle over national security has been won, it seems, by the economy.

Time and again, candidates couched their answers with the acknowledgment that the economy's downturn is hurting their truly big goals.

It's exactly the sort of wonky discussion that suits a professorial candidate like Gingrich.

The former speaker was brusque, quick to respond -- with a trademark historical comparison -- before launching into his foreign policy platform. Gone was the combative Gingrich who drew some moderators in with hissy fits. In his place arrived a practiced politico with a deep base of institutional knowledge, book smarts and, quite frankly, nothing to lose.

Foreign Policy Approaches

Candidates sought to define their vision of foreign policy through problems with unstable and heavily armed sovereign nations -- Iran and Pakistan.

Pakistan is a concern. That's the country that ought to keep everyone up at night, said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. You've got a nation state that is a candidate for failure.

Some anticipated the evening's focus, and Huntsman's foreign policy bonafides as ambassador to China should have made the debate ripe for his coronation as the next not-Mitt. But his performance seemed wooden, and his calls for reasonability largely fell flat. China, his strong suit, was left off the menu wholesale. Huntsman suffered the biggest blowback from his opponents when he expressed support for a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan.

The other candidates pounced on the idea.

Romney said he'd leave the choice to the commanders on the ground, then asked Huntsman if he'd be willing to pull back troops.

Did you hear what I just said? Huntsman shot back.

Romney seemed a shadow throughout the debate -- largely the result of shoddy moderating. It seemed CNN forgot he was on the stage, with bickering between Paul and, well, take your pick of opponent, consuming the better part of the time. Five, 15, 20 minutes went by without Romney's face flashing across the screen. Cain and Huntsman also suffered from the same lack of equitable airtime, to a lesser degree.

Romney did not waste his few moments at the microphone, inveighing against President Barack Obama on several occasions. Others, like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachman, R-Minn., joined the anti-Obama chorus.

But the attacks on Obama's policies were not steady, signaling the death knell of the 2004 race's weak on terror strategy. With the killing of Osama bin Laden, continued existence of Guantanamo Bay and aggressive use of drones, no candidate tried to call the president soft -- just misguided.

The format of the debate itself, sponsored by the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, neutered many of the previous complaints by opening the floor to questions from the audience, though most audience members were AEI or Heritage employees.

Gone were Gingrich's grumbles about impertinent questions, or Romney's bickering over rules.

Still, little was done to diminish the perception that Romney has a capable opponent in Gingrich.