President Barack Obama’s leadership on national security was attacked by potential Republican challengers in the primary season’s first debate -- a forum that lacked any of the prospective candidates leading in the polls.
The session, sponsored by the South Carolina Republican Party and broadcast live on the Fox News cable television channel, came four days after Obama announced that a U.S. raid into Pakistan that he approved had killed Osama bin Laden, boosting the Democratic president’s foreign policy credentials.
“He did a good job, and I tip my cap to him in that moment,” former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said in the debate.
The raid, though, is “not the sum total” of Obama’s national-security record, and in other areas he has been lacking, he said.
Pawlenty, 50, was joined by four others in a gathering that underscored the unformed nature of the Republican contest before nomination caucuses and primaries start early next year.
Absent from the debate stage at the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina, were potential candidates with more celebrity star power, such as former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and real estate developer Donald Trump. Also absent were two of those who have led in the early polling of potential candidates -- former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
Others participating in the 90-minute debate were U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and Herman Cain, a onetime chairman of Godfather’s Pizza.
“If you look at what President Obama has done right in foreign policy, it has always been a continuation of the Bush policies,” said Santorum, 52. “He’s done right by finishing the job in Iraq. He’s done right by trying to win in Afghanistan. Those were existing policies that were in place.”
On other foreign policy matters, Obama has “gotten it wrong” every time, Santorum said.
With the exception of Cain, all of those on the stage said that if they were in the White House, they would release a photo of bin Laden’s corpse.
With the al-Qaeda leader dead, Paul called on the U.S. to remove troops from Afghanistan.
“It is a wonderful time for this country now to reassess it, and get the troops out of Afghanistan, and end that war that hasn’t helped us and hasn’t helped anybody in the Middle East,” said Paul, 75, chairman of the House Financial Services subcommittee that oversees the Federal Reserve.
Paul later blamed the Federal Reserve for the largest recession since the Great Depression.
“We have not had the necessary correction for the financial bubble, created by our Federal Reserve system, and until you allow the correction and the liquidation of debt, you can’t have growth,” he said.
Johnson, 58, was booed by some in the debate audience when he said he supports abortion rights. “I support a woman’s right to choose up until viability of the fetus,” he said, adding that he opposes the use of public money to pay for abortions.
Santorum was asked to comment on a statement made last year by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, another potential presidential candidate who passed on the debate and who has said the next president “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues” until the economic crisis is resolved.
“Anybody that would suggest that we call a truce on the moral issues doesn’t understand what America is all about,” Santorum said. He said the sanctity of marriage and protecting life stemmed from the fundamental founding principles and “if we abandon that, we have given up on America.”
Cain, who supported Romney in 2008, said he was running because his party needs a new set of faces.
“Back then, I saw his business experience,” he said. “I’m running now, rather than supporting Mr. Romney, because he did not win, so I’m going to try my time.”
Before tonight’s debate, Republicans have been focusing more on domestic policy than foreign policy in making their cases against Obama -- spotlighting rising gasoline prices, the shaky U.S. economy and a national debt that is approaching $14.3 trillion.
The economy slowed more than forecast in the first quarter of this year as government spending declined by the greatest amount since 1983 and household purchases cooled. Gross domestic product rose at a 1.8 percent annual rate from January through March, down from 3.1 percent in the final three months of 2010.
Some of the candidates who didn’t participate in the debate said it was too early in the primary season for such a session, especially when they haven’t fully decided whether they will run.
Other potential candidates who weren’t present were U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who resigned last month as the U.S. ambassador to China.
At 18 percent, Romney led in a Quinnipiac University poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents released May 4. Tied for second were Huckabee and Palin, with 15 percent, followed by Trump at 12 percent.
Among those on the debate stage, Paul had 5 percent, Pawlenty 4 percent, and Santorum and Johnson each had 1 percent. Cain wasn’t included in the survey by the Hamden, Connecticut- based university.
The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points for its questions on the Republican race.
Huntsman, who created a federal political action committee on May 3 as a possible prelude to a presidential candidacy, is scheduled to speak in South Carolina on May 7, his first public speech since returning to the U.S.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, speaking to a Tea Party gathering before the debate, had encouraged the potential candidates to not focus too much on Obama.
“We don’t want to hear about what President Obama is doing wrong; we can see that for ourselves,” she said. “We want to see what they are doing to do right.”
Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told reporters before the debate that he wasn’t concerned that more potential candidates did not participate.
“I think we’re going to have plenty of time to have this debate,” he said. “The American people are ready to start beginning this debate process right now, and I’m looking forward to future debates to come and more candidates getting in the race.”
The Associated Press decided not to cover the debate to protest limits placed on media coverage by its organizers. The AP said in a news report about the dispute that the sponsors blocked still photographers from entering the debate hall.
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