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GOP Hopefuls Draw Sharp Divisions on Foreign Policy at Debate

November 23, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Eight Republican candidates gathered Tuesday night in Washington, D.C., for their 11th debate, which centered on foreign policy and national security. Ray Suarez recaps the debate with NPR's Ari Shapiro.
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RAY SUAREZ: And to presidential politics.

Eight Republican candidates met last night in Washington for their 11th debate, which centered on foreign policy and national security.

The sharp divisions among the Republican hopefuls were clearly on display at last night’s encounter, broadcast on CNN. The field’s freshly-minted leader in the polls, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, was asked, if he was president, what he would like to see happen with the millions of illegal immigrants living in the country.

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) presidential candidate: If you’ve come here recently, you have no ties to this country, you ought to go home, period. If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.

RAY SUAREZ: Gingrich’s response drew criticism from some of his rivals, including Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN, R-Minn., presidential candidate: Well, I don’t agree that you would make 11 million workers legal, because that, in effect, is amnesty.

MITT ROMNEY, (R) presidential candidate: Saying that we’re going to say to the people who have come here illegally that now you’re all going to get to stay or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the United States, that will only encourage more people to do the same thing.

RAY SUAREZ: Romney also clashed with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman over the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.

MITT ROMNEY: We don’t want to literally pull up stakes and run out of town after the extraordinary investment that we’ve made. And that means we should have a gradual transition of handing off to the Afghan security forces the responsibility for their own country.

WOLF BLITZER, moderator: Gov. Huntsman, do you agree with Gov. Romney that the U.S. has to stay in Afghanistan at these levels?

JON HUNTSMAN, (R) presidential candidate: No, I — I totally disagree. Now, the fact that we have 100,000 troops nation-building in Afghanistan, when this nation so desperately needs to be built, when, on the ground — we do need intelligence gathering, no doubt about that. We need a strong special forces presence. We need a drone presence. And we need some ongoing training of the Afghan National Army.

But we haven’t done a very good job defining and articulating what the end point is in Afghanistan. And I think the American people are getting very tired about where we find ourselves today.

(APPLAUSE)

RAY SUAREZ: Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann disagreed, meanwhile, over whether the U.S. should continue to send aid to Pakistan.

GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas, presidential candidate: The bottom line is that they have showed us time after time that they can’t be trusted. And until Pakistan clearly shows that they have America’s best interests in mind, I would not send them one penny, period.

REP. MICHELE BACHMANN: With all due respect to the governor, I think that’s highly naive, because, again, we have to recognize what’s happening on the ground. These are nuclear weapons all across this nation. And, potentially, al Qaeda could get hold of these weapons.

RAY SUAREZ: The war on terror and its impact on civil liberties also revealed fissures among the candidates.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was pressed on his support for profiling terror suspects.

WOLF BLITZER: Who would be profiled?

RICK SANTORUM, (R) presidential candidate: Well, the folks who are most likely to be committing these crimes. Obviously, Muslims would be — would be someone you’d look at, absolutely. Those are the folks who are — the radical Muslims are the people that are committing these crimes, as we’ve — by and large, as well as younger males.

RAY SUAREZ: Texas Congressman Ron Paul warned, that would set a dangerous precedent.

REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas, presidential candidate: That’s digging a hole for ourselves. What if they look like Timothy McVeigh? You know, he was a pretty tough criminal.

I think we’re using too much carelessness in the use of words that we’re at war. I don’t remember voting on — on a declared declaration of war. Oh, we’re against terrorism.

(APPLAUSE)

REP. RON PAUL: And terrorism is a tactic. It isn’t a person. It isn’t a people.

RAY SUAREZ: Paul also traded verbal blows with businessman Herman Cain, who said he would support possible military action by Israel against Iran to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

HERMAN CAIN, (R) presidential candidate: And if Israel had a credible plan that it appeared as if they could succeed, I would support Israel, yes. And, in some instances, depending upon how strong the plan is, we would join with Israel for that, if it was clear what the mission was and it was clear what the definition of victory was.

REP. RON PAUL: Israel has 200, 300 nuclear missiles. And they can take care of themselves. Why should we commit — we don’t even have a treaty with Israel. Why do we have this automatic commitment that we’re going to send our kids and send our money endlessly to Israel?

RAY SUAREZ: And with just six weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, the differences between the candidates are likely to become more defined.

Ari Shapiro of NPR was at last night’s debate, and joins us now.

Let’s set the stage a little bit. Most of the previous debates were held in early primary states, this one in Washington, D.C.

ARI SHAPIRO, NPR: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Did it make a difference?

ARI SHAPIRO: Yes, and the audience was very different, too.

For example, when we had questions from the audience, we had a question from a former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, a former Republican attorney general, a deputy defense secretary.

And so, as a result, I think you saw the candidates not necessarily giving so much red meat that some of the base voters would really be enthusiastic about. The audience seemed to respond more, I think, to substance than they did to some of the show, because these were the Washington insiders in the audience, the Washington insiders that so many of the candidates have tried to show they are not running to be, you know, the people who will change Washington from the outside.

RAY SUAREZ: What were the standout moments of last night’s program?

ARI SHAPIRO: I think people were very surprised that Newt Gingrich took the stance on immigration that he did. This was the first debate where Newt Gingrich was in the lead in some polls. And he could have played it safe. But he didn’t.

You heard him talk about this plan to make workers who had been in the United States for a long time, had roots, had a family, had a clean track record, make them legal without making them citizens. And that wasn’t the only time he sort of went against traditional Republican orthodoxy. One member of the audience asked whether he would rule out cuts to defense budget as an attempt to reduce the deficit.

He said, no, I won’t rule it out. If we’re in an age where it takes 15 or 20 years to develop a new weapon, and Apple comes out with a new technology every nine months, there might be something wrong here, and maybe we should cut the Defense Department budget.

Those were somewhat risky positions for a front-runner like Newt Gingrich to take.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, when Gov. Perry made a similar declaration at a debate in Florida, he was booed.

ARI SHAPIRO: That’s right.

RAY SUAREZ: And for the next several days, his opponents capitalized on that statement. Could it hurt Newt Gingrich the same way?

ARI SHAPIRO: Oh, it could definitely hurt Newt Gingrich the same way.

One key difference between what Rick Perry said in that earlier debate and what Newt Gingrich said in this debate, Rick Perry used the word heartless to describe the people who disagree with him about immigration. Newt Gingrich was pretty vocal in defending his position.

He said, I don’t know how the party that defends family can justify dividing families. But he didn’t call his opponents heartless. That may turn out to be a difference, although this could still really hurt Newt Gingrich with the base. We just have to see what the fallout is.

RAY SUAREZ: There were several tough exchanges about getting out and under what circumstances and how fast from Iraq and Afghanistan. Tell me about those.

ARI SHAPIRO: Right. Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney had one of the most heated exchanges, where we saw former Utah Governor, former Chinese Ambassador Jon Huntsman saying we have really accomplished a lot in Afghanistan, and it’s time to start bringing troops home.

Mitt Romney pretty aggressively said, you want to just pull out tomorrow? He described it as a cut-and-run approach. Jon Huntsman snapped back at him. I think Jon Huntsman was really trying to prove his foreign policy bona fides. Of everybody on the stage, he’s the one with the most foreign policy experience, and this was his opportunity to demonstrate that.

And it certainly didn’t hurt for him to engage head on with the person who has more or less consistently been the front-runner since the beginning of the election process, Mitt Romney.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, here was a debate on foreign policy and national security. Was it remarkable in a way for the things that weren’t discussed?

ARI SHAPIRO: Yes, I was very surprised that European debt crisis, the eurozone, didn’t come up once.

You know, the economy is what concerns Americans the most right now. And the international issue that could most affect the economy is arguably the eurozone debt crisis. Not mentioned once. There was very little discussion of China, which I think is a hugely important issue.

And, also, the Arab spring was touched on a little bit. Iraq was touched on a little bit, but not so much.

RAY SUAREZ: And can you tell that things are changing inside the race? Politicians say they never look at the polls…

ARI SHAPIRO: Right.

RAY SUAREZ: … but can you tell from a debate that something is happening in the field?

ARI SHAPIRO: Well, yes. And some of this has to do with the moderator, who gets the most questions.

And I thought last night actually was a little more even-handed than some of the other debates. But, inevitably, the person whose head pops up, whether that’s Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, or now Newt Gingrich, gets some more of the incoming and some more of the attacks.

So we saw, for example, when Newt Gingrich made that argument for granting some people legal status in immigration, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney didn’t hesitate to go after him.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR’s Ari Shapiro, good to see you.

ARI SHAPIRO: You, too, Ray.