The Republican presidential candidates finally found a way to draw stark contrasts with one another, revealing a surprising amount of divergence on the proper role for the U.S. in world affairs.
For months the candidates have struggled to draw major distinctions as they all ran to the right on economic and social issues. But in a CBS/National Journal debate Saturday focusing on foreign policy, the candidates staked out disparate positions on military intervention in Iran, the definition of torture and foreign aid budgets.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had a rock-bottom moment during another debate three days ago when he suffered a major memory lapse, exceeded expectations by avoiding any significant gaffes.
A rare opportunity to shine for Jon Huntsman, the only candidate with major foreign policy experience, slipped by for the former Utah governor as moderators kept him largely on the sidelines and his answers appeared to fall short of impressing the South Carolina audience.
On Iran, where new evidence from a U.N. agency suggests the nation’s leaders are actively pursuing a nuclear weapon, Cain and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) said U.S. military intervention was not called for.
“Not at this time; I would not entertain military opposition,” Cain said. “I'm talking about to help the opposition movement within the country.”
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) said the option absolutely must be placed prominently on the table.
Romney said “crippling sanctions,” diplomatic pressure and economic influence would be the first tactics his administration would use against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“If all else fails, if after all of the work we've done, there is nothing we can do but take military action, then of course we take military action,” he said.
As the focus of the debate leapfrogged across the globe, a dynamic of shifting alliances emerged among the candidates onstage. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), two outspoken social conservatives, were most consistently on the same page.
Gingrich, meanwhile, alternated between praise for the ideas of Cain and of Romney.
"We're were here tonight talking to the American people about why every single one of us is better than President Obama," Gingrich demurred when given a chance to take a free swing at Romney. He called Romney — the man standing between him and first place standing in the GOP race — "an enormous improvement" over Obama.
Gingrich had the most to gain in Saturday's debate, and also the most to lose if he didn't take advantage of the unexpected second look he is getting from Republican voters as the other candidates vying to be the Romney alternative continue to burn out.
A McClatchy-Marist poll of Republicans released on Friday showed that Gingrich has climbed into second place with 19 percent, just three points behind Romney, and now ahead of Cain by two points.
Candidates also drew distinct lines between each other on the issue of waterboarding, the divisive interrogation method used under President George W. Bush against terrorism suspects. Obama banned the practice, and the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), called it torture.
Cain and Bachmann left no doubt that the practice would be reinstated as a way to extract valuable intelligence from detainees.
“If I were president, I would be willing to use waterboarding. I think it was very effective. It gained information for our country,” Bachmann said, knocking Obama for being too soft on terrorism suspects. “Today, under Barack Obama, he has allowed the ACLU to run the CIA.”
Cain said he did not agree with torture, but would allow military leaders to determine what constituted torture.
“I would return to that policy. I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique,” Cain said, referring to the Bush administration’s euphemism of choice for waterboarding.
Huntsman said the use of waterboarding — which he called torture — diminishes the country’s ability to project its values overseas. And Paul, whose libertarian mindset most frequently puts him in hot water with Republican voters on foreign policy issues, said there was no reason to pursue it as a tactic.
“It's illegal under international law and under our law,” Paul said. “It's also immoral, and it's also very impractical. There's no evidence that you really get reliable evidence.”
Perry later chimed in on the topic while answering another question, underscoring the tough “cowboy” persona he has developed in part due to his support for Texas’s high rate of executions for prisoners.
“That's what happens in war,” he said, adding that he would waste no time bringing back waterboarding. "I will be for it until I die.”
The clash of values within the Republican Party over support for civil liberties and limited government, on the one hand, and a strong national defense on the other was also visible in an argument over Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric and al Qaeda leader that Obama ordered killed.
Romney was booed by the debate’s audience when he said he would absolutely have ordered al-Awlaki’s killing, observing that he had associated himself with a group that had declared war on the United States.
“Anyone who is bearing arms with that enemy is fair game for America,” Romney said.
But Gingrich was later treated with applause when he said the fact that al-Awlaki had not been convicted of any crime in court was irrelevant.
“If you engage in war against the United States, you are an enemy combatant," Gingrich said. "You have none of the civil liberties of the United States, so you cannot go t court.”
Bachmann also raised some eyebrows during a tangent she pursued laying out how China, whose economy is growing rapidly despite a monetary policy that many Americans think is unfair, had approached its fiscal decisions. Bachmann’s comments appeared to suggest Americans follow China’s example.
“If you look at China, they don’t have food stamps,” Bachmann said. “They save for their retirement.”
But it was Perry who took a stance most likely to exact pushback from the wide swath of Republican voters who see U.S. support for Israel to be paramount to protecting American safety and wellbeing. Amid a call for a reduction in overall spending by the federal government, Perry said foreign nations shouldn’t count on automatic aid from the United States.
“The foreign aid budget in my administration, for every country, is going to start at zero dollars. Zero,” Perry said.
The moderator later posed to Perry a follow-up question from a Twitter user, which asked whether that ultimatum would apply to Israel, the recipient of billions of dollars of American aid every year. The Republican candidates have fallen over each other in previous debates attempting to take the strongest stance in support of the Jewish state.
“@GovPerry would tweet back to her, absolutely,” Perry said, referring to his own Twitter handle. “Every country would start at zero. Obviously, Israel is a special ally, and my bet is that we would be funding them at some substantial level.”
Perry didn’t escape Saturday’s debate without a reference to his flap three days earlier, when Perry, while listing the three federal departments he would seek to eliminate, forgot the third. That led to a cringe-worthy, almost minute-long implosion where he sough unsuccessfully to recall the department. It also struck even many of his supporters as a corroboration of one of the primary critiques of Perry — that he melts under pressure, would struggle in debates against President Obama and engages with his own policy positions on mainly a surface level.
“Glad you remembered it,” Perry said when the moderator Scott Pelley brought up the Department of Energy, the agency which Perry could not name.
“I’ve had some time to think about it, sir,” Pelley said.
“Me too,” Perry retorted.