In their first debate focused solely on foreign policy and America’s place in the world, the Republican presidential candidates directed their attacks in one direction Saturday: at President Obama.
The commander-in-chief who directed the killings of two of the world's most-sought-after terrorists received almost no quarter from the field of White House aspirants on stage at a debate sponsored by National Journal and CBS News. The Republican candidates lambasted Obama for doing little to prevent a nuclear Iran and sending too much money abroad in foreign aid. Perhaps the strongest condemnation came from Mitt Romney, who said another term for the president guarantees it will build a nuclear bomb. The only exception to the negative blitz: Bachmann commended the president for the raid that ended in the death of Osama bin Laden.
The intense criticism comes despite a string of foreign policy successes for Obama, from the killing of the 9/11 mastermind to the ousting of Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya. Of the eight candidates on stage, Bachmann was the only one to offer a hint of praise for the president. None indicated they thought Obama’s tenure has left the country safer.
Politically speaking, the Republican candidates have little choice but to condemn the president—conservative voters are so sharply critical of Obama they won’t tolerate much praise for him. But creating such a sharp contrast could put the eventual nominee in a difficult spot next year. Obama’s anti-terrorism policies are popular with the public -- including his decisions to withdraw troops from Iraq and begin withdrawing from Afghanistan. Seventy-seven percent of the public – and 63 percent of Republicans – approve of the president’s decision to remove all troops from Iraq, according to a CBS News poll released on Friday.
Most of the pre-debate scrutiny focused on Perry after he committed one of the most cringe-worthy moments in presidential debate history. The Texas governor delivered a better, if still uneven, performance. As he did in the days after Wednesday night’s gaffe, he used humor to regain his footing, joking with moderator Scott Pelley about his nationally televised brain freeze. Still, the governor recalled memories of past poor performances when he offered little detail about withdrawing from Afghanistan, saying “we are discussing with our commanders” about the situation, and gave a rambling response about China’s “virtues.”
Otherwise, the front-running Romney delivered another strong performance, marked most for his stinging criticism of Obama and tough talk toward China. With the focus of the debate on foreign policy, Herman Cain was able to avoid more questions about the sexual harassment allegations facing him. Newt Gingrich probably propelled his recent momentum in the polls.
The debate, the first on network television, was held in the state that will host the third presidential primary on Jan. 21. Historically the winner of the Palmetto State's Republican primary has gone on to become the party's nominee. But voters and pundits in the state aren't sure they'll be able to maintain that record this time around.
Romney: If Obama re-elected, Iran will get nukes
Romney started the debate on a decidedly hawkish note, saying he would use the military to stop Iran from developing a nuclear missile if diplomatic and economic options fail.
“It's worth putting in place crippling sanctions,” Romney said. “It's worth working with the insurgents in country to encourage regime change in the country and if all else fails, if after all of the work we've done there's nothing else we can do beside take military action, then of course you take military action.”
The ex-Bay State governor has struggled to define his international vision during the campaign, vacillating between a hawkish agenda and one that focused on withdrawing America’s military presence abroad. But he emphasized a far more aggressive vision Saturday night, at least with Iran.
“If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon,” he said. “And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.”
Perry's first foray back onto the horse after a disaster in Wednesday night's debates had mixed results. He started strong: In his first answer of the night, Perry seemed eager to show some foreign policy expertise, detouring from a question on Afghanistan to offer a suggestion that none of his opponents provided in an earlier discussion of Iran. Perry said the Obama administration should sanction Iran's central bank as a way of crippling that country's economy and stymie the development of a nuclear weapon.
Asked about Afghanistan, Perry said “the mission must be completed,” and took direct aim at the Obama administration's decision to withdraw troops, saying that the idea that we would give a timetable to our enemy is “irresponsible” leadership from the president.
But when asked specifically about his appraisal of the situation on the ground, Perry did not offer much in the way of detail, saying that “we are discussing with our commanders” about what is going on.
The Texas governor pivoted from a question about Pakistan to decry foreign aid – a criticism that resonates with Republicans eager to reduce spending overseas.
“It doesn't make any difference whether it's Pakistan or whether it's Afghanistan or whether it's India,” he said. “The foreign aid budget in my administration for every country is going to start at zero dollars – zero dollars.”
The line received huge applause from the audience – an important early affirmation for Perry as he tries to recover from last debate’s epic stumble. The governor was animated and spoke confidently, a stark contrast from earlier debates when he struggled to articulate his answers and seemed subdued.
“American soldiers’ lives are being put in jeopardy because of that country and the decisions that they're making and it's time for us as a country to say no to foreign aid to countries that don't support the United States of America,” he said.
But later, Perry offered a long, convoluted take on China, attempting to draw a parallel with the way Ronald Reagan handled the relationship with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Here’s his full quote. We'll let readers try to figure it out:
“Listen, there are some people who made the statement that the 21st century is going to be the century of China and that, you know, we've had our time in the sunshine. I don't believe that. I don't believe that at all. As a matter of fact, you think back to the 1980s, and we faced a similar type of a situation with Russia. And Ronald Reagan said that Russia would end up on the ash heap of history, and he was right. I happen to think that the communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history if they do not change their virtues. It is important for a country to have virtues, virtues of honesty. And this whole issue of allowing cybersecurity to go on, we need to use all of our resources. The private sector working along with our government to really-- standing up to cyber-command in 2010 was a good start on that. But fighting this cyberwar I would suggest is one of the great issues that will face the next president of the united states and we must win.”
Huntsman: Why are we in Afghanistan?
Huntsman re-emphasized his role as the GOP field’s most iconoclastic foreign policy candidate -- with the exception of Ron Paul. In sharp contrast to his rivals, Huntsman argued that the country needs to withdraw from Afghanistan as soon as possible so America can refocus it's gaze on other parts of the world.