WASHINGTON (AP) - Republican presidential hopefuls warned in
near unanimity against deep cuts in the nation's defense budget
Tuesday night, assailing President Barack Obama in campaign debate but disagreeing over the extent of reductions the Pentagon should absorb to reduce deficits and repair the frail U.S. economy.
The debate ranged widely, from Iran's threat to develop a
nuclear weapon to the anti-terror Patriot Act, the war in
Afghanistan, U.S-Pakistan relations and illegal immigrants who have
entered the U.S. across the Mexican border. Former House Speaker
Newt Gingrich said some should be allowed to stay, drawing fire
from rivals Mitt Romney and Michele Bachman.
On defense spending, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney said
nearly $1 trillion in cuts are on the horizon for the Pentagon over
the next decade, noting that is the same as the costs for the
nation's new health care law. He blamed Obama for that, adding,
"We need to protect America and protect our troops and our
military and stop the idea of Obamacare."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry was harshly critical of the magnitude of
potential cuts saying the Obama administration's Pentagon chief had
called them irresponsible. "If Leon Panetta is an honorable man,
he should resign in protest," Perry said.
Neither Perry nor Romney specified if they support any cuts in
the Pentagon's accounts, but Gingrich and Jon Huntsman, one-time
ambassador to China, both indicated the topic should be on the
table as budget-cutters look for savings.
"It's clear that there are some things you can do to defense
that are less expensive," said Gingrich.
Only Rep. Ron Paul of Texas sounded unperturbed, saying that
despite ominous talk, lawmakers are considering only reductions in
future military growth, not actual cuts.
In a race constantly in flux, the former House speaker has
recently emerged as Romney's principal rival atop the public
opinion polls. As he looked around him, he saw other rivals who
once held that position - Bachmann, Perry and businessman Herman Cain among them.
They and the other GOP would-be commanders-in-chief made their
points in a national security debate a mere six weeks before the
Iowa caucuses begin the formal competition for delegates to next
summer's National Republican Convention. The venerable DAR
Constitution Hall was the site - a few blocks from the White House
and as close as most if not all of the GOP hopefuls are likely to
On immigration, Gingrich said that while some who are in the
country illegally should be forced to leave the country, that
wasn't true for all of them.
"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," he said.
Romney and Minnesota Rep. Bachmann strongly differed.
She said, "I don't agree that you would make 11 million workers
legal, because that, in effect is amnesty."
Neither the format nor the moderator permitted all eight
candidates to answer any one question, producing a somewhat
disjointed event in which there was relatively little back-and-forth
among the rivals.
Syria was one exception - Perry saying he supported a no-fly
zone over the nation where President Bashir Assad's forces are
using force to quell protests, and Romney saying now is not the
The focus on defense cuts came one day after Congress'
supercommittee failed to reach agreement on a plan to reduce red
ink by $1.2 trillion over the next decade, an outcome that
threatens to trigger a similar amount in automatic spending cuts
beginning in 2013.
The Pentagon's share of those reductions would be about $500
billion, an amount that would come on top of Obama's own plan to
trim military costs by about $450 billion.
Romney did not distinguish between the two categories when he
accused Obama of targeting the Pentagon for debilitating
"They're cutting a trillion out of the defense budget, which
just happens to equal the trillion dollars that they're putting
into Obamacare," he said. He said such a Pentagon reduction would
crimp weapons acquisition and other critical defense needs.
Several Republicans spoke up strongly for the anti-terror
Patriot Act, saying it should be extended or perhaps strengthened
to help identify and capture those who would attack the United
Only Rep. Paul among the eight presidential hopefuls dissented,
arguing that the law is "unpatriotic because it undermines our
Gingrich jumped at that. "That's the whole point. Timothy
McVeigh killed a lot of Americans," the former House speaker said.
"I don't want a law that says after we lose a major American city,
we're sure going to come and find you. I want a law that says, you
try to take out an American city, we're going to stop you."
Neither Gingrich nor any other Republican mentioned that Obama,
like President George W. Bush before him, signed legislation
extending the Patriot Act. He did so while traveling in Europe last
May, putting him name on a four-year extension of the law that
gives the government sweeping powers to search records and conduct wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists.
Asked about the same general topic, Bachmann said Obama has
"essentially handed over our investigation of terrorists to the"
American Civil Liberties Union. "Our CIA has no ability to
investigate," she said. Bachmann did not cite any examples to
buttress either of her claims.
On other issues, Cain seemed to sidestep when asked if he would
help Israel attack Iran in the event the Islamic regime acquired
nuclear weapons. He said he would want to know what the plan was
and have an understanding of its chance of success.
Gingrich said he would bomb Iran only as a last resort and with
a goal of bringing about the downfall of the government.
There was disagreement when it came to the war in Afghanistan.
Former Utah Gov. Huntsman said it was time for the United States
to withdraw nearly all its troops.
Romney said top generals disagreed with that and asked Huntsman
if he was talking about a withdrawal beginning immediately.
"Did you hear what I said?" Huntsman asked across the debate
stage, noting that under the Constitution the president is
commander in chief. A few moments later, referring to Vietnam, he
said a president had listened to the generals in 1967, and the
outcome was not in the interests of the United States.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)