The GOP Debates, 'Get Tough on Iran Edition'

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The easiest pitch for Republican candidates to handle at Saturday's foreign policy debate was on Iran. How hawkish was each candidate willing to be on that nation's efforts to develop nuclear weapons? As hawkish as you can imagine.

Herman Cain called for assisting anti-government resistance within the country, Newt Gingrich called for "taking out" the scientists leading their nuclear development, and all of the candidates were in agreement that Barack Obama has failed to block Iran's progress toward the bomb.

The candidates had some disagreements when they debated aid for foreign governments, including Pakistan and Israel, and the use of interrogation techniques that verge on (or are) torture, Bloomberg Businessweek reported. In particular, some of the candidates seized on Rick Perry's only potential gaffe of the evening, after his disastrous stumble in Michigan. Perry answered a question about U.S. foreign aid by saying the country should "start at zero" in providing payments for foreign governments, but that would likely mean a huge cut to Israel, a dependent ally in the Middle East, and Pakistan, whose shaky government accepts billions each year from the U.S. to maintain stability.

“We need a president of the United States working with a Congress that sends a clear message to every country,” Perry said. “It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s Pakistan, or whether it’s Afghanistan, or whether it’s India.”

Perry said that he would apply the same zero marker for foreign aid to Israel. Still, he said he expected Israel to continue receiving aid under his presidency.

“Israel is a special ally. And my bet is that we would be funding them at some substantial level,” he said. “But it makes sense for everyone to come in at zero and make your case.”

That response "could still prove risky for a Republican candidate when the GOP base so intensely supports Israel," CBS News reported in a round-up on the debate. CBS was the sponsor of this debate. In all, it was another a strong performance by Romney, a surprisingly assured showing from Perry, and a chance for Newt Gingrich to prove he's not a grinch.

For one of the most substantive debates of the campaign, Gingrich's depth and command of the issues allowed the former speaker to shine. Gingrich has been accused of scowling in prior debates, but his demeanor Saturday was markedly friendlier. And he scored points with conservatives in responding to a question from debate co-host CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley, who pointed out that al Qaeda recruiter and U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by U.S. forces without trial, was not convicted in court. You don't get such privileges if you are at war with the United States, Gingrich said. 

Their differences are showing, though, especially as time starts to grow short for candidates in the back of the pack to draw strong contrasts with Romney, the leader in many polls despite Cain's recent surge. (You can tell he's the frontrunner when his rivals attack him, but also when they shy away from doing so, as Gingrich did last night. Keeping options open for a veep bid, Newt?) But the strongest policy differences are emerging among contenders in the second tier, not between them and those on the top. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul argued about waterboarding with each other, and Jon Huntsman only seemed to isolate himself further from the Republican mainstream by supporting a quicker drawdown of troops in Afghanistan. From NPR's debate wrap-up:

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Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann defended harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.

"I think it was very effective. It gained information for our country," she said, "and I also would like to say that today, under Barack Obama, he is allowing the [American Civil Liberties Union] to run the CIA."

But Texas Rep. Ron Paul called waterboarding "torture."

"It's illegal under international law and under our law. It's also immoral, and it's also very impractical," he said. "There's no evidence that you really get reliable evidence."

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman also rejected waterboarding. While some of his fellow Republicans criticize Obama for pulling troops out of Afghanistan too quickly, Huntsman called for an even deeper drawdown.

"I don't want to be nation-building in Afghanistan when this nation so desperately needs to be built," he said.

What about time in the debates? Bachmann's team in particular was miffed that their candidate, like Rick Santorum, didn't receive as much time to shine as some of the others. That was because of her low standing in the polls, something the CBS organizers accidentally revealed to Bachmann's staff in a titanic email-fail, according to Politico.


Her campaign was accidentally CCed on an email about her time expectations sent by moderator John Dickerson, which her advisers posted on Facebook during the debate to document what they insisted was unfair treatment.

Her campaign manager, Keith Nahigian, was heard in the spin room by several reporters referring to Dickerson as "a piece of s***."

Dickerson replied that his comments on Bachmann were about her low standing in the polls - she's at less than 5 percent in some - and nothing else.

Finally, the Rick Perry strategy for dealing with his brain freeze from the Michigan debate continues to be: joke about it. And it kinda works! His advisers have been spinning that incident as "humbling," and a reason to let the inner folksy Texan out of the national campaign shell. As moderator Scott Pelley asked him about his plan to eliminate the Department of Energy — the one he couldn't remember the other night — Perry cracked, "glad you remembered it." The crowd, and Pelley, laughed about it.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.