SitRep: National defense in the GOP debate

The Republican presidential hopefuls will travel to Cleveland on Thursday for the first primary debate of the 2016 election season.

Thursday's first presidential debate in Cleveland will offer Republican voters the first look at the 17 candidates vying to be the next commander in chief, but military issues will be fighting for time at the event as much as any of the hopefuls.

So far, major national security and veterans issues haven't been the focus of the early campaigning. That's due in large part to the big GOP field, since everyone with the exception of business mogul Donald Trump has struggled to grab headlines on any topic.

But it's also a reflection of similarities in their defense talking points. None of the candidates have expressed support for President Obama's policies toward Iran, Russia or Syria. All of them have promised to strengthen the military, but few have offered specifics on what that means.

Here are three things for military and veteran voters to watch for at the event:

Will the "happy hour" debate feature more defense talk?

With all the attention focused on headline debate set for 9 p.m. Eastern time headline featuring the top 10 Republican candidates, the earlier 5 p.m. debate with the seven hopefuls who are further back in the polls could be a more productive event. They'll have a smaller audience but also more breathing room on stage to assert their positions and attack their opponents.

The undercard will include South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has focused most of his presidential bid on national security issues, and former New York Gov. George Pataki, who emphasized the threat of international terrorism and Veterans Affairs reform at a New Hampshire candidates forum earlier this week.

Those two alone may be able to steer the lesser debate into a more military-friendly direction.

Will anyone break ranks on Iran?

All of the major Republican candidates — like their counterparts in Congress — have criticized the new nuclear deal with Iran as dangerous to U.S. national security. They have all promised to strengthen ties to Israel and put more pressure on the Iranian government, rhetoric that so far failed to separate any individual from the rest of the field.

To date, only former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has been able to grab individual attention on the Iran issue — and not for the right reasons. His comments comparing the deal to the Holocaust drew widespread condemnation from Jewish groups and Israeli government officials.

If a candidate produces a viable alternative to the deal or a stronger plan on how to deal with Iran, it could help burnish that campaign's foreign policy credentials.

What will Trump say about POWs?

The Republican front-runner wasn't hurt in the polls by his comments last month that Arizona Sen. John McCain's combat record is up for criticism because he was captured and served as a prisoner of war.

But the remarks enraged veterans groups on both the left and the right, and should make for easy attacks on the boisterous Trump from the other hopefuls. Several have demanded an apology or his exit from the race, neither of which Trump has offered.

Trump's popularity so far seems tied to his celebrity and his sensational comments, and he has offered virtually no specifics on any issue. But the debate should offer some closer scrutiny of the business mogul. And with nine other candidates on stage, the event will offer a headache for moderators trying to keep him on tight time limit.