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Debate Shows GOP Has Little Unity On Security Issues


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.

The new man at the top of some Republican presidential polls is Newt Gingrich. He's the latest of many candidates to emerge as an alternative to Mitt Romney in the race for the nomination. And Gingrich took some bold positions in last night's presidential debate.

CNN and two conservative think-tanks sponsored a talk in Washington on foreign policy, and NPR's Ari Shapiro was there.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The eight rivals took the stage at Constitution Hall, just a few blocks from the White House that they hope to move into a little more than a year from now.

The two-hour exchange did not have the sharp personal attacks or spectacular flameouts that have made some of the other debates into viral YouTube sensations. But there were strong differences of opinion, showing how little unity there is in the Republican Party today on issues of national security.

On immigration, former House speaker Newt Gingrich broke with traditional Republican orthodoxy. He said he would allow some undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. legally.

NEWT GINGRICH: I don't see how the party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here for a quarter century.

SHAPIRO: Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney called Gingrich's plan amnesty, adding that it will be a magnet attracting still more people across the border.

MITT ROMNEY: There's no question but that saying that were going to say to the people who've come here illegally, that now you're all going to get to stay. Or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the United States. That will only encourage more people to do the same thing.

SHAPIRO: This Romney-Gingrich clash was a moment that many people were looking for. Romney has more or less led the Republican pack from the beginning of the race. Gingrich, rising from single digits in earlier phases of the campaign, pulled ahead of Romney for the first time this week.

But Gingrich did not play it safe last night. On top of his immigration stance, he broke with his party's doctrine when a member of the audience asked the candidates to rule out military spending cuts to help reduce the federal deficit. Gingrich refused to do so.

GINGRICH: It's clear, if it takes 15 to 20 years to build a weapons system at a time when Apple changes technology every nine months, there's something profoundly wrong with the system. So I'm not going to tell you automatically I'm going to say yes.


SHAPIRO: That, too, differs from Romney.

There were also disagreements over aid to Pakistan. Texas Governor Rick Perry believes the country should get no U.S. money.

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Until Pakistan clearly shows that they have America's best interest in mind, I would not send them one penny. Period.

SHAPIRO: Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann called Perry highly naive. She argued that the U.S. cannot afford to give up the intelligence that it gets for the money paid to Pakistan.

REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN: Pakistan is a nation that it's kind of like too nuclear to fail.

SHAPIRO: In one of the most pointed exchanges of the evening, former Utah Governor John Huntsman supported bringing troops home from Afghanistan, prompting Romney to accuse him of cut-and-run.

ROMNEY: Are you suggesting, governor, that we take all the troops out next week? What's your proposal?

JON HUNTSMAN: Did you hear what I just said? I said we should draw down from 100,000. We don't need 100,000 troops.

SHAPIRO: Romney said he would defer to the generals, which prompted this from Huntsman.

HUNTSMAN: At the end of the day, the president of the United States is commander-in-chief. Commander-in-chief. Of course you're going to listen to the generals.


HUNTSMAN: But I remember when we listened to the generals in 1967 and we heard a certain course in Southeast Asia that didn't serve our interests very well.

SHAPIRO: When the subject turned to the war on terror, Texas Congressman Ron Paul said it wasn't worth compromising civil liberties. But most of the candidates took a hawkish position. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said he would support profiling people, including Muslims.

When former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain took a similar position, moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN pushed for specifics.

WOLF BLITZER: Is it OK for Muslim Americans to get more intensive pat downs or security when they go through airports than Christian Americans or Jewish Americans?

HERMAN CAIN: No Blitz, that's oversimplifying it.

SHAPIRO: Cain then apologized and said he meant that this is a blitz debate.

There was little discussion of China or Iraq, and no mention, at all, of the debt crisis in Europe. But there are many more debates just around the corner.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.