Updated 8:43 p.m. Eastern Time
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich said at the Republican presidential debate here Saturday night that they would be willing to go to war to keep Iran from attaining nuclear weapons if all other strategies failed.
Romney said that if “crippling sanctions” and other strategies fail, military action would be on the table because it is “unacceptable” to Iran to become a nuclear power. Gingrich agreed, saying that if “maximum covert operations” and other strategies failed there would be no other choice.
Ron Paul strongly disagreed, stressing the need to go to Congress before military action and saying it isn’t worthwhile to use military force against Iran.
“I’m afraid what’s going on right now is similar to the war propaganda that went on against Iraq,” he said.
Herman Cain also opposed military action against Iran, saying the U.S. should increase sanctions, deploy ballistics missiles warships in the region and assist the opposition movement.
The “Commander-in-Chief Debate,” sponsored by CBS News and National Journal, was the first of the 2012 presidential cycle to focus on foreign policy – and the first to appear on network television. For Cain, the stakes were particularly high.
Cain holds a narrow lead among GOP primary voters in the CBS News poll released Friday, with 18 percent of the vote, but he has seen his support weaken in the wake of revelations that he has been accused of sexual misconduct by four women.
Cain, who holds no foreign policy experience, has displayed little knowledge of foreign policy issues during the campaign. The debate marked the first test of his ability to articulate his vision on international issues – and the first debate where he would largely be unable to fall back on references to his signature 9-9-9 tax plan.
Cain, along with Michelle Bachmann, said they supported the use of waterboarding, which Cain said isn’t torture but an “enhanced interrogation technique.” Paul disagreed, saying “waterboarding is torture” and “torture is illegal” under both U.S. and international law as well as “immoral.” So did Jon Huntsman, who said waterboarding is torture and the U.S. amdicates its values by engaging in it.
In the debate hall, on the campus of Wofford College here in the northern section on the state, the eight candidates were positioned based on their position in the polls – with Cain and Romney at the center of the stage and Huntsman and Rick Santorum on either side. The candidates’ spouses and loved ones were positioned in the front row of the 1,400-person debate hall, so that they could make eye contact with their candidate.
Next to Santorum on the right side of the stage was Rick Perry, who has faded in the polls since his high-profile entry into the race but who remains a serious threat for the nomination thanks to his strong fundraising network, a result of his decade as Texas governor and his past chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association.
The debate was the first for Perry, who stood at eight percent in Friday’s poll, since his disastrous gaffe Wednesday night when he said he wanted to eliminate three government agencies – but couldn’t remember the third. The awkward moment garnered enormous attention, and Perry did a flood of interviews and television appearances on Thursday in an effort to contain the damage.
When the gaffe came up, Perry noted with a wry smile that moderator CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor Scott Pelley remembered it.
“I’ve had some time to think about it,” Pelley responded. “Me too,” said Perry, prompting laughter from the audience.
For Romney, who was tied with Gingrich at 15 percent in Friday’s poll, the debate was a chance to further the notion that he gives Republicans the best opportunity to defeat President Obama next November. Asked which GOP presidential candidate is most qualified to be commander-in-chief in Friday’s poll, Republican primary voters chose Romney more than any other candidate, at 26 percent. And voters see Romney, who is widely seen as having outperformed his rivals in nearly every debate so far, as having the best chance to beat Mr. Obama by a 2-to-1 margin.
commander-in-chief question, with 21 percent, and he actually beat Romney on the question of which candidate is most qualified to handle an international crisis. Gingrich is seeking to establish himself as the primary alternate to Romney, and is seen as having a good grasp of the issues; his biggest challenge Saturday may be to keep his ego in check and avoid coming off like a professor who wants to show students just how smart he is.
Gingrich seemed to split with Romney when asked about negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan. After Romney said he would not negotiate with the group, Gingrich was asked if you can win the war without doing so. “I don’t think you do,” he replied.
But Gingrich declined to elaborate on his previous criticism of Romney, who he has suggested would be a manager as president, not a transformative leader. Asked if he would discuss that view, Gingrich simply said “no,” going on to say the focus should be on the fact that Romney and the other candidates are superior to President Obama.
Romney and Gingrich agreed that it is acceptable for the U.S. government to kill a U.S. citizen living abroad who has engaged in terrorism against the United States, with Gingrich saying, “if you engage in war against the United States, you are an enemy combatant” and thus lose your rights. He insisted that the “rule of law” would be in effect even if the person had not been convicted in a court of law.
The debate, moderated by Pelley and National Journal congressional correspondent Major Garrett, was also a platform for Paul to spotlight his opposition to much of the United States’ military footprint abroad, an issue on which he differs strongly with his rivals.
Since 1980, the winner of the South Carolina primary has gone on to win the Republican nomination every time. And like national Republican voters, seven in ten of whom say it’s too early to know who they’ll support, voters in the state show no sign they have started to make up their mind.
The debate took place as Mr. Obama was in his native Hawaii meeting with Asian leaders for a Pacific summit on economic growth, trade and investment. The United States and eight other nations, including Japan, announced plans Saturday to create a trans-Pacific free trade zone larger than the European Union by the end of next year.
China has expressed skepticism about the new trade pact. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum convenes 21 Pacific Rim economies, including China, to promote global trade and global growth but is not a free-trade zone.