Back on May 6, Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party had particularly bad timing — they hosted the first 2012 presidential debate just four days after President Barack Obama announced to the nation that Navy SEALs had hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden.
With news coverage almost completely devoted to the demise of the late al-Qaida boss, the few people who tuned in to the debate had to settle for what amounted to a lackluster intramural dress rehearsal between popular libertarian protest candidate Rep. Ron Paul, former New Mexico governor and unpopular libertarian protest candidate Gary Johnson, social-issues specialist and former Sen. Rick Santorum, former Minnesota governor and establishment plan-B candidate Tim Pawlenty and the debate's surprise winner — former Kansas City Fed director, one-time Godfather's Pizza CEO, Tea Party darling and conservative talk-radio impresario Herman Cain.
But tonight's debate — live from Manchester, N.H., on CNN and stocked with most of the brand-name contenders — looks to be the real deal.
Presumptive frontrunner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is in. So's Michele Bachmann — the evangelical Christian Minnesota congresswoman who is the real Sarah Palin.
And the GOP campaign now has more juice for the average voter: Congress is busy arguing over raising the debt ceiling and debating the fate of RyanCare — Republicans' Medicare voucher-ization plan. Candidates are staking out positions on the big issues, and with a new USA Today/Gallup poll showing Romney at 24 percent, Cain at 9 percent and Palin — the undeclared X-factor — getting 16 percent, the race is up for grabs.
To coax them into drawing a few lines in the sand — and setting themselves apart from Obama — here are a few questions Monday's debate panel should think about putting to the contenders:
1. "Gov. Romney, you're a Detroit native. Your father was a three-term governor of Michigan and president of American Motor Company. Given your background and your understanding of the importance of the auto industry to American manufacturing, why did you oppose the president's bailout of Chrysler and General Motors — which saved, according to estimates, a million jobs?"
2. "Mr. Cain, you've repeatedly said that as a candidate, you can't and won't offer a plan for Afghanistan until after taking office and having a chance to get briefed on all the facts. Can you contrast that approach with President Obama's? As a candidate in 2008 Obama said, 'We will kill bin Laden, we will crush al-Qaida,' and has since ordered the operation that killed bin Laden and authorized a campaign of drone strikes that have killed several major al-Qaida operatives."
3. "Gov. Pawlenty, last week you gave a speech promising Americans that if elected president, your economic plan would generate 5 percent GDP growth over the next five years — something that wasn't even achieved with the Bush tax cuts in more robust economic times. Other than proposing a tax cut, can you be specific about how you would go about doing that?"
4. "Rep. Bachmann, in the last Congress you sponsored or co-sponsored $3.7 million in earmark requests. In that context, can you explain your State of the Union rebuttal speech that tagged the Obama stimulus as a 'massive budget bill with over 9,000 earmarks'?"
5. "Rep. Paul, you voted against President Bush's TARP bailout in the wake of the 2008 financial sector collapse. At the time, then-Sen. Barack Obama voted for it. If TARP hadn't passed, and the global financial markets had collapsed as many predicted, would Americans have been better off if all their 401Ks had disappeared?"
6. "Mr. Gingrich, since announcing your candidacy a month ago, you've come out against your own party's Medicare plan, you were for the president's Libya intervention before you were against it, you've defended your $250,000 tab at Tiffany's and your whole campaign staff quit last week after you disregarded their advice to forego a mid-campaign Mediterranean vacation.
Can you tell us again why you're running for president?"
7. "Sen. Santorum — same question."
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.