ABC News’ Michael Falcone, Shushannah Walshe and Z. Byron Wolf report:
More foreign policy and national security fault lines emerged among the eight contenders for the Republican presidential nomination on everything from racial profiling to the Patriot Act to the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
The candidates met in Washington, D.C., for their 11th debate of the GOP primary cycle at an event sponsored by CNN, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.
It was their second straight opportunity to confront one another over foreign policy and national security matters, and they wasted no time illuminating their differences of opinion.
Gingrich Goes Out on a Limb on Immigration.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has risen to the top of the national polls, staked out a bold and moderate position on immigration, endorsing a legal status for illegal immigrants with family ties in the U.S.
Although this position could help Gingrich in a general election, it could create a vulnerability for him in the Republican primary, particularly among conservatives in Iowa and South Carolina. Rival Rick Perry’s support for in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants has already cost him significant support.
“I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who have been here a quarter of a century, who have children and grandchildren, who are members of the community – take them and expel them,” Gingrich said. “I do believe that if you have no ties, you should be expelled. I don’t see how the party who says they are the party for the family – I will take the heat by saying let’s be humane, finding the legality so we do not separate these people from their families.”
It’s a fine-tuned position that would affect only some of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the country.
“I specifically did not say we would make 11 million people legal,” Gingrich said. “As someone who believes strongly in family, you’re going to have a hard time explaining how we should get rid of people who have been law-abiding citizens for 25 years.”
He envisions a type of pathway to that legal status but not citizenship.
“I believe ultimately you have to find some system, once you put every piece in my place, you need something like a World War II selective ward that sorts out the people who are here,” Gingrch said. “You get to be legal, but you don’t get a path to citizenship, so you haven’t automatically given amnesty to anyone.”
Ron Paul Raises Eyebrows.
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, complained that he got less than two minutes of air time in the last debate. Not so on Tuesday night when he got just as much time as the top-tier candidates. Paul uttered one of the most provocative comments of the campaign when he seemed to defend the Taliban.
“I worry about overreaction on our part,” Paul said. “I am concerned about getting into another war when we have not been attacked, and our national security is not a threat. I’m concerned people don’t fully understand the Taliban and why they are motivated.”
He also called terrorism a “crime” and said the Patriot Act is “unpatriotic.”
Agitation Over Afghanistan.
At Tuesday night’s debate, rivals Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman engaged in a tete-a-tete over whether to keep troops in Afghanistan.
Romney told moderator Wolf Blitzer, “We don’t want to just pull up stakes and get out of town after the enormous output we’ve just made for the region – look at Indonesia in the ’60s. We helped them move toward modernity. We need to help bring Pakistan into the 21st century, or the 20th for that matter. Right now American approval in Pakistan is 12 percent we’re not doing a very good job with that investment. We could do better by encouraging the opportunities of the west.”
But Huntsman came out swinging, challenging Romney to accept U.S. victories in the region essentially praising both the Bush and Obama administrations for progress there.
“I think we need an honest conversation about what we have achieved. We have dismantled the Taliban, we’ve had free elections, we’ve killed Osama bin Laden, we have achieved some very important goals,” Huntsman said. “Now we have all those people in Afghanistan nation-building when our own nation is suffering. We haven’t done a very good job at finding and articulating what the end point is in Afghanistan.”
Romney asked whether Huntsman was “suggesting that we take them all out next week?”
The former U.S. ambassador to China replied that “We need something more akin to 10-15,000, special force capability.”
Both candidates also sparred on the extent to which they would consult their generals.
“The commanders on the ground feel we should bring down our surge troops by the end of 2014. The decision to pull our troops out before then would put at risk our achievements,” Romney said. “This is not time for America to cut and run. We are winding down, and the mission is pretty straightforward, and that is to allow the Afghan people to have a sovereign nation.”
Huntsman shot back: “At the end of the day, the president is commander in chief. Of course, you’re going to listen to the generals,” he said. “The president is the commander in chief and ought to be informed by a lot of different voices.”
Some of the most thoughtful moments of the debate came as Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, engaged in a philosophical debate over the question of civil liberties versus national security.
Gingrich said he would do nothing to change the Patriot Act, which was enacted shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks.
“I would not change it,” he said. “I’m not aware of any specific change it needs.”
“Our early founders were very clear,” the Texas congressman said. “They said, ‘Don’t be willing to sacrifice liberty for security.’ Today it seems too easy that our government and our Congress is so willing to give up our liberties for our security. I have a personal belief that you never have to give up liberty for security. You can still provide security without sacrificing our Bill of Rights.”
When Paul said that Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh “was arrested,” Gingrich immediately turned the argument against his rival.
“Timothy McVeigh succeeded. That’s the whole point,” said Gingrich. “Timothy McVeigh killed a lot of Americans. 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.”
But Paul warned that line of reasoning represented a slippery slope to a police state.
“This is like saying that we need a policeman in every house, a camera in every house, because we want to prevent child- beating and wife-beating. You can prevent crimes by becoming a police state,” he said.
There were also some lighthearted moments when Herman Cain flubbed moderator Wolf Blitzer’s name – calling him Blitz. And Mitt Romney introduced himself by declaring his first name was Mitt. And that’s what people call him. But his given name is Willard.