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What to watch for in tonight's GOP debate on CNN

Republican presidential candidates, seen here on the Aug.

Republican presidential candidates, seen here on the Aug. 6, 2015 debate stage, are expected to take the gloves off at the second debate, experts say. Photo Credit: AP

Maybe the biggest thing to watch during tonight's Republican presidential debates is ... whether anybody watches tonight's Republican presidential debates.  The first one last month, on Fox News, was a record-breaking phenomenon of Trumptacular national attention. But Americans, other than the wonkiest of the wonks, have generally shown that they cannot pay attention to presidential races for 15 months straight.

Tonight features two debates on CNN. First comes the prelim, at 6 p.m., featuring former New York Gov. George Pataki, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, for which there's not a whole lot of buzz. If you didn't make it out of this round last time a la Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive, you're probably not going to, and that means the only real entertainment might come from just how far they're willing to go to make a splash.

The main event is at 8 p.m., and will have 11 participants. Billionaire developer Donald Trump is at center stage, flanked by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. They will get the most play, along with Fiorina, who is expected to try to extract payback for Trump's assertion that her face makes her unelectable.

This debate is supposed to focus on foreign policy and will reportedly pit individual candidates against each other to battle on specific questions. Right off the bat, moderators Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Hugh Hewitt will face the challenge of matching up against the tough, aggressive questions the Fox crew threw last month.

It's always tempting to talk about which candidates will win, come off well, score zingers and trend. But what I really want to know is who has decent answers on foreign policy - an area that has gotten thornier in peacetime than it was in the midst of two wars.

What is our role in helping the desperate refugees fleeing Syria? How do we help make the world a peaceful and prosperous enough place that millions don't have to consistently flee their homelands?

How do we stop nuclear proliferation? Is man-made global warming a foreign-policy danger (if you believe it exists), and if so how do we handle it? Does military intervention in civil strife or regional squabbling ever work for the United States?

How do we handle world trade so that both our citizens and other nations prosper? China? Russia? Iran? Iraq? India? Israel? The prosperous Arab nations, and the impoverished ones? A Europe overrun by strangers. Mexico and Central America awash in instability and sending newcomers our way.

What to watch for in tonight's debate is whether any of the candidates have enough knowledge and sense to present an informed and cohesive foreign-policy vision. And that's something, honestly, that the current administration has not presented in seven years in office.