Surging in Republican presidential primary polls, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used Tuesday night’s national security debate in Washington to argue for a potential strike on Iran, a broader Patriot Act and the granting of legal status to many illegals in the U.S. as a way to regain control of the immigration system.
“I’m prepared to take the heat,” Mr. Gingrich said as he defended an immigration plan that would allow those here illegally but who have families or have put down roots get a limited legal status to remain and work in the U.S.
That drew strong fire from others in the field, who said legalization would act as a magnet to encourage future illegal immigration and undermine efforts to secure the border.
“I’m not going to start drawing lines here about who gets to stay and who gets to go,” said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “The principle is that we’re not going to have an amnesty system that says that people who come here illegally get to stay for the rest of their life in this country legally.”
The eight candidates who squared off at DAR Constitution Hall just blocks from the White House all said President Obama is failing to combat key national security threats in Iran and Pakistan. But the two-hour debate, aired by CNN, also exposed deep divisions within the field over how to best change the Obama foreign policy.
During his three years in office, Mr. Obama has committed to winding down the war in Iraq, boosted and then began to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and joined NATO’s war that helped topple longtime Libyan strongman Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
Along the way, the president also ordered the strike that killed Osama bin Laden at a compound in Pakistan — a move that strained relations with that nation.
Mr. Gingrich said the attack should have strained relations, because it showed Pakistan was failing to fight terrorism.
“Don’t complain if we kill people you’re not willing to go after,” he said.
But Rep. Michele Bachmann, a member of the House intelligence committee, said relations with Pakistan are more complex, and she shot down the argument of fellow candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry that foreign aid should be cut off, calling that “highly naive.”
“We need to demand more. The money that we are sending right now is primarily intelligence money to Pakistan. It is helping the United States,” the Minnesota lawmaker said.
For his part, Mr. Perry said he would impose a no-fly zone over Syria to help those protesting the government there, and called on Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to resign in protest over looming defense spending cuts.
Representing the other side of the spectrum, Rep. Ron Paul pleaded for a more modest foreign policy that he said would stop antagonizing other countries and would make the U.S. less of a target.
“Why don’t we mind our own business?” he said.
The debate was an unwieldy affair as moderator Wolf Blitzer jumped around among the eight candidates, meaning some of them never answered major questions, such as whether they would authorize an attack on Iran or aid an Israeli strike.
But across the two hours, different versions of conservatism emerged over the scope of powers the federal government should have to combat terrorism.
Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Perry said they would seek to strengthen the Patriot Act to give the president more powers to try to stop future attacks.
Mr. Romney said there needs to be a distinction between criminal law and the rules of war.
“For those that understand the difference between the two, they understand we need tools when war is waged domestically,” Mr. Romney said.
Mr. Romney took his strongest stand of the debate in opposing the automatic defense spending cuts that are now slated to take effect in 2013 after the deficit supercommittee failed Monday to reach a $1.2 trillion debt deal.
But Mr. Paul, a Texas Republican who has emerged as a chief defender of limited intervention and constitutional liberties, said there’s plenty of cutting room.
“It seems like nobody cares about the budget. We’re in big trouble, and nobody wants to cut anything,” he said.
Also taking part in the debate were former corporate CEO Herman Cain, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
With Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses less than six weeks away, there’s little time left for candidates seeking to make a move into the top tier, which currently consists of Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich and to a lesser extent Mr. Cain and Mr. Paul.
Mr. Gingrich is the latest to surge in polls. A new Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday showed him atop the leader board nationally.
But the poll also held some warning signs for Mr. Gingrich that suggested his well-documented political past and extramarital affairs could come back to haunt him in the nomination race, leaving him to face the same sort of fate as Mrs. Bachmann, Mr. Perry and Mr. Cain — all of whom enjoyed stints at the front of the pack.
Mr. Romney, meanwhile, is doubling down on what appears to be a general election strategy aimed at making this a race between him and Mr. Obama. On Tuesday, he ran full-page advertisements in New Hampshire’s biggest newspapers and released a new television ad, in which he contended the policies of Mr. Obama have failed the nation.
The event Tuesday night in Washington marked the 11th debate since summer. It was the second debate this month to focus on foreign policy and the first time the major candidates stood on the same stage since the 12-member bipartisan congressional supercommittee tasked with coming up with $1.5 trillion in tax increases and/or spending cuts over the next 10 years announced that it had failed in its mission.
Now, under the deal Mr. Obama and congressional leaders agreed to over the summer, automatic cuts totaling $1.2 trillion, split between defense and domestic spending, are set to go into effect in 2013.
Mr. Obama’s own defense secretary warned those cuts would be devastating to the military, and some lawmakers on Capitol Hill have said they will try to pass legislation to undo them.
“My message to them is simple: No. I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off-ramps on this one,” the president said.
He said the only bill he will accept to head off defense cuts must find cuts elsewhere, or raise taxes.
The failure of the supercommittee and the $15 trillion national debt have been easy targets for Republicans on the campaign trail, where some of them, including Mr. Romney, have vowed to block tax increases and cuts to defense, which makes up about 20 percent of federal spending.