Carol Platt Liebau

Tonight’s Republican presidential debate marks the beginning of the real campaign season, when GOP regulars start looking in earnest at the declared candidates for their party’s nomination. Participants include Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann; businessman Herman Cain; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; Texas Rep. Ron Paul; former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

It’s a big moment for many of the candidates – and for the political junkies who live for these events. How will Gingrich perform, given the big news about the mass resignation of his top aides? Can Romney convincingly claim the mantle of the front-runner? Will any of the lesser-known candidates “break through” to top-tier status?

But beneath the “horse race” aspect of the event, there is a serious decision to be made. Republicans need to find a candidate who both represents their deepest values and who can defeat Barack Obama. To that end, here are a few criteria that Republicans might want to keep in mind as they evaluate the candidates’ performances tonight:

1. Can the candidate discuss America’s problems honestly without frightening voters?

We live in serious times, caught in the grip of the worst economic downturn of most voters’ lifetimes, and with all economic signs pointing to continued – and worsening – conditions. Can the candidate discuss these issues frankly, but still manage to leaven his (or her) bleak assessment with some optimism about the future? Can s/he project a vision for handling tough choices (like needed reforms to entitlements) in a manner that will not lend itself to the predictable Democrat (and media) charges of being “cold” and “uncaring”? And can s/he criticize the President without coming off as petty or mean?

2. Can the candidate communicate the details that flesh out his/her “vision” for the country?

Beware charismatic candidates armed only with talking points. They may sound good in the initial stages of a campaign – and it’s easy, as dedicated partisans, to lose our hearts to the people who hit all the right oratorical notes. But a winning candidate has to have more. Look to see – can s/he do more than bring a hard-hitting but general indictment of the President’s stewardship of the economy? To what degree can s/he actually “connect the dots” between the President’s policies and our financial straits – and then explain how his/her specific plans will change conditions for the better?

3. Can the candidate pass the “Commander-in-Chief” Test?

Carol Platt Liebau

Carol Platt Liebau is an attorney, political commentator and guest radio talk show host based near New York. Learn more about her new book, "Prude: How the Sex-Obsessed Culture Hurts Young Women (and America, Too!)" here.