One of the moderators at the debate, Major Garrett of the National Journal,… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )
Reporting from Spartanburg, S.C. — Saturday night's Republican debate was designed as a serious-minded discussion of foreign policy and national security, issues largely overlooked in the 2012 presidential campaign.
Throughout a forum held in one of the most conservative areas of the country, the GOP contenders struck a hawkish tone. They condemned President Obama's leadership across a wide range of areas, including the Middle East, Afghanistan and relations with China.
The candidates also differed sharply at times, over foreign aid, how to handle Pakistan and whether the interrogation technique known as waterboarding is torture.
But a more compelling human drama was also playing out: Texas Gov. Rick Perry's return to the debate stage three days after committing an unforgettable memory lapse that may go down as one of the worst debate blunders of the television age.
The good news for Perry was that the sequel did not feature anything like his futile fumble for the name of a federal agency he wanted to close.
The governor delivered a forceful defense of "enhanced interrogation tactics," which the Obama administration has suspended, as acceptable when U.S. forces are engaged in conflict.
"For us not to have the ability to extract information to save our young people's lives is a travesty. This is war," Perry said, his voice rising, adding that he would favor such tactics "until I die."
Though the Texan did not appear entirely comfortable with all of the subject matter at the debate, he delivered a solid performance and managed to get off a good line or two about his gaffe.
Moderator Scott Pelley of CBS News, prefacing a question to Perry about nuclear weapons, noted that the governor had advocated eliminating the Department of Energy.
"Glad you remembered it," Perry remarked.
Replied Pelley: "I've had some time to think about it, sir."
"Me too," the governor shot back, to laughter from the audience.
Along with Herman Cain, another candidate who has struggled with international issues during the campaign, Perry appeared to have difficulty with questions about U.S. relations with Pakistan.
Perry ducked when asked to explain why Pakistan is playing a "double game" with the United States. But he drew applause from the crowd at Wofford College when he threatened to end foreign aid to Pakistan.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, whose demeanor was more sober than in previous debates, took issue with Perry and said the presence of radical elements in close proximity to Pakistan's nuclear weapons made continued U.S. aid to the country essential.
But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came to the Texan's defense, agreeing that it was a "pretty good idea" for the U.S. to start at zero each year in deciding how much money to offer foreign countries in aid — a policy that Perry said he would also apply to Israel, a statement sure to raise eyebrows among many on the Republican right.
Cain, pressed to say whether he would send U.S. military forces into Pakistan to attack Islamist insurgent sanctuaries, fell back on an answer that he frequently gives to national security questions: that he would defer to his generals and military advisors.
Gingrich gave a more nuanced reply, explaining that he would work with friendly elements in Pakistan to deal with the problem and adding that it "could be highly incendiary" to endorse such a move on a debate stage.
Mitt Romney, who rarely strayed from talking points, set the tone for the evening at the outset by describing the continuing rise of a nuclear Iran as Obama's "greatest failing" in foreign policy.
Iran "will have a nuclear weapon" if Obama is reelected, predicted Romney. "If we elect Mitt Romney, if you'd like me as the next president, they will not."
He repeated his criticism of Obama's China policy and the pace of the pullout of U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan.
The former Massachusetts governor received scattered boos when he defended Obama's decision to kill American-born Anwar Awlaki in a September drone strike in Yemen.
The crowd then cheered Rep. Ron Paul, whose repeated dissents from the hard-line rhetoric of his rivals set him apart, as it has at other debates. The Texas congressman deplored what he called the "lawlessness" of the U.S. actions, which also resulted in the killing of Awlaki's 16-year-old American-born son.
When the debate turned to waterboarding, the simulated drowning tactic authorized against terrorism suspects during the George W. Bush administration and rescinded by Obama, Paul, a military veteran, condemned the practice as "immoral," "uncivilized" and "un-American."
Several rivals, including Gingrich, Bachmann and Cain, said they would reinstate waterboarding.