SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The last time Carly Fiorina was here, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO sketched out her comprehensive foreign policy blueprint. One thousand people heard her condemn the slow training of anti-Islamic State forces, the

The stakes will be high in Wednesday’s debate for Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and Jeb Bush. Fiorina has emerged as a stronger candidate after the first debate, while Carson has been climbing in the polls against Trump. Bush has had trouble living up to his early frontrunner label and could use a strong showing.

Carly Fiorina

ambitions of China and the wonky “tooth-to-tail” ratio of military power to military bureaucracy.

It was sober. It was serious. It was basically ignored. Like much of this summer’s political news, Fiorina’s July speech was subsumed by Donald Trump; it inspired only a fraction of the news searches of her name as last week’s Rolling Stone revelation that Trump had made fun of her looks, according to Google Trends data.

The rise of Trump and of retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, two first-time candidates who prefer broad strokes to policy debates, has left the Republican establishment looking confused and helpless. Originally expecting a clash of ideas between a diverse, talented field, the establishment’s national security experts paired up with candidates and got to work – only to be blown out of the conversation by Trump.

That’s left some Republicans hoping that Wednesday’s debate will break the fever – and change the tenor of the race from flashy to substantive. Hugh Hewitt, the syndicated Orange County radio host who will co-moderate the event, has promised to grill candidates about geopolitics and world leaders. If that happens, the debate will become a crucial test for Trump and Carson.


“If this isn’t the moment to finally get serious, when the hell will it be?” asked Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another Republican presidential contender. “Is the next time we get serious about foreign policy going to be when we get attacked? Everybody criticizes Barack Obama’s foreign policy, everybody knows

he has no strategy in Iraq and Syria, but we need something specific to replace that. If we don’t hear that from the candidates, this week will have been a waste of time.”

Graham is an unwilling mascot for how foreign policy has fallen out of the primary debate. Just months ago, he was engaged in a near-daily debate with libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., over everything from Iran to the Islamic State. “I’m running,” Graham said, “because the world is falling apart.” On Wednesday afternoon, Graham will join former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, another long-time Washington hawk, at the four-man “also-ran” debate. Santorum is at least invited to a policy-focused forum in Greenville, South Carolina, hosted by Heritage Action for America; Graham, who lives near the venue, is not.

Ben Carson

Ben Carson

That will leave the task of vetting Carson and Trump Wednesday to nine other candidates and the moderators. Neither frontrunner has laid out a specific plan for attacking the Islamic State; Trump, consistently, has told audiences that he has a secret

plan that he cannot share lest the enemy find out. Both candidates have been light on strategies for other crises.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services and the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, lamented how little attention has been paid to foreign policy so far.

“There certainly hasn’t been very serious discussion of it, because of the nature of the campaign,” McCain said. “Just rhetoric.”

Both Trump and Carson bombed interviews with Hewitt – to no appreciable effect on their poll numbers. In March, Carson appeared not to realize Baltic states were NATO members. Asked about the fumble, he explained that a president would have “access to a lot of experts in a lot of areas,” and would not be stymied by gotcha questions. “You don’t want to devote all your attention to learning facts on a fact sheet,” he said. His standing has grown dramatically since then.

Trump, under more scrutiny, fared even worse. He’d previously told “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd that his foreign policy advice came from watching Sunday talk shows and talking to hawks like former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton. Faced with Hewitt’s questions, Trump seemed to confuse Iran’s Quds forces for the decidedly non-Iranian Kurds, and he couldn’t describe the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas.


Hewitt, meanwhile, returned to his debate prep with some new thinking about how to really draw out the candidate.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

“I don’t think those questions, quiz questions about knowledge, tell you anything about understanding,” Hewitt said. “Knowing names is dumb. That’s not necessary. I wish I had phrased my question to Trump as: Gen. Soleimani, who leads the Quds forces, is about to get $100 billion. What will the impact of that be? That’s what I wanted to ask, and it went off the rails. I’ve gotten more sympathetic to Donald’s position here.”

It’s true that Trump’s and Carson’s actual positions have been largely unexamined – and have remained room-shaking applause lines at his rallies. Trump offers audiences a vision of an America that’s always “winning,” that learned from the Iraq War (which he came out against 16 months after the invasion), that is ready to “take the oil” from conquered Islamic State territory.

“We’re gonna have so many victories,” he told more than 10,000 people in Dallas yesterday, “at some point it’s gonna be coming out of your ears!”

Carson has offered a lower-decible version of the same idea, minus the oil seizures. At a rally last week in Anaheim, California, Carson said mysteriously that some generals had told him that Islamic State could be defeated easily if the military’s “hands aren’t tied.” In Anaheim, and at a later rally in a Houston suburb, Carson said he’d oblige.

“I would use every resource, including financial resources; offensive and defense resources; covert and overt activities,” he said in Texas. “I would use everything possible not to contain them but to destroy them.”

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