Republican presidential front-runner Newt Gingrich and rival Jon Huntsman Jr. squared off Monday afternoon at a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate on national security and foreign policy.
The event, sponsored by the St. Anselm College Republicans and hosted by the New Hampshire Institute of Politics and Political Library, was modeled after a series of seven debates that took place between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas during their 1858 campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinios, in which one candidate spoke for the first 60 minutes, the second candidate followed with a 90-minute rebuttal, and then the first speaker had 30 minutes to respond.
Monday’s debate lasted half as long and focused on half a dozen predetermined questions, but the candidates were allowed to answer without strict time constraints, which made for 90 minutes of what felt like a college seminar.
“I can see my daughter nodding off over there,” Huntsman quipped.
The candidates kept the conversation very friendly, noting often the areas where they agreed while shying away from discussing their disagreements.
Huntsman characterized the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as “nothing more than a transactional relationship for the United States,” while Gingrich warned that Pakistan “will use” nuclear weapons.
Both took turns using hawkish rhetoric about Iran: While Gingrich equated allowing Iran to develop a nuclear weapon with allowing a second Holocaust, Huntsman said Iran was “the transcendent threat of this decade.”
Gingrich advocated forcing Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program – “we’re ideally going to do it nonmilitarily, but we are not going to tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapon” -- while Huntsman warned that additional sanctions on Iran “won’t work because the mullahs in Tehran have already decided they want to go nuclear.”
“I think we all need to conclude that this is going to be the United States doing it our way at the end of the day,” Huntsman said. “Which isn’t all bad. I think we work better when left to our own devices.”
The forum gave Huntsman an opportunity to show his expertise on China, where he served as U.S. ambassador until earlier this year.
Huntsman described a “hubristic, nationalistic generation” emerging in China, and predicted that the Chinese political climate would restrict relations until the middle of the decade.
At one point, he broke into Mandarin to repeat a phrase he says he heard often: “In China, we have politics too, by the way.”
Not to be outdone, Gingrich conceded that Huntsman “knows far more about China than I do,” but was sure to note that he, too, had some experience with the emerging superpower.
“In fact, they used to say that to me too, and I had no idea what it meant,” Gingrich joked.
Huntsman, who is banking his campaign on New Hampshire, took the opportunity to remind potential primary voters that he has staked it all on their state.
“I hope you understand my English because I’ve acquired this real New Hampshire accent, having spent so much time here,” he said, later adding that, “For the speaker to become the nominee, he’s going to have to overcome our very formidable operation on the ground here in New Hampshire.”
As the debate came to a close, Gingrich praised the format, a favorite of his – for years, he has challenged rivals to a Lincoln-Douglas-style stage. In 2007, Gingrich and Sen. John F. Kerry held one such debate over carbon reduction. He has pledged that if he becomes the nominee, he will challenge President Obama to a series of Lincoln-Douglas debates.
“We’re a country in enormous trouble. And we need leaders who are willing to talk to people at a sophisticated level,” he said. “This is not a Hollywood game. This is not a reality show. This is reality.”
“I can’t wait to compare and contrast this format with the Donald Trump debate,” Huntsman said.
Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum will participate in a debate hosted by Trump on Dec. 27. Huntsman, who has said that Trump’s involvement in the primary “dumbs down” the campaign, is skipping the event.
Apparently pleased with the Lincoln-Douglas format, Huntsman’s campaign called on Mitt Romney to join Huntsman in a Lincoln-Douglas debate before the New Hampshire primary.