Republican Presidential Candidates Attempt to Find Foreign Policy Footing

Richard Shiro/AP Photo

SPARTANBURG, S.C. — In a 90-minute session that focused on a set of issues that have largely taken a back-seat to the economy during the primary season, the Republican presidential candidates showcased some stark differences between each other on foreign policy Saturday night.

Perry’s Redemption

There’s no question about it: the stakes on stage at the CBS News, National Journal, South Carolina Republican Party debate were highest for Texas governor Rick Perry, who committed an embarrassing gaffe at another debate just three nights ago.

There were no such blunders at Saturday night’s event and Perry offered some solid responses to a slew of questions about international issues. The foreign aid budget in my administration for every country is going to start at zero dollars, zero dollars,” Perry said.

Even when pressed in a follow-up question about whether that proposal also included Israel, Perry stood his ground. “Every country would start at zero.

Obviously, Israel is a special ally, and my bet is that we would be funding them at some substantial level, but it makes sense for everyone to come in at zero and make your case.”

Representatives from Perry’s campaign even felt comfortable enough in his performance tonight to declare the Texas governor the winner of the debate.

The pronouncement means very little, but it would have been unimaginable after the candidate’s now-infamous “oops” in Michigan on Wednesday night. “We went from worst to first,” Perry’s South Carolina chairman Katon Dawson, told ABC News.

Not Much Clarity From Cain

Foreign policy is not Herman Cain’s strong suit. A series of mistakes throughout the primary season, including his lack of knowledge about China’s nuclear weapons program, has confirmed that.

Though he remains at the top of the polls even after being beset by sexual harassment allegations, Cain did little to show a more substantive understanding of these issues in South Carolina Saturday night. When asked about instances when, as commander-in-chief, he would feel comfortable over-ruling his own generals, Cain offered a hazy response: “Surround yourself with the right people. You will know you’re making the right decision when you consider all the facts and ask them for alternatives.”

And when asked whether Pakistan was a “friend or foe,” Cain replied: “We don’t know… There is a lot of clarity missing.” The same could be said of Cain’s own positions.

Romney Stays Focuses On Obama

From the start, Mitt Romney cast his opponent as President Obama rather than one of the seven other GOP contenders who shared the stage with him. In response to a question about whether it would be worth going to war to curtail Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, Romney accused Obama of doing too little to prevent Iran’s “nuclear folly.”

The former Massachusetts governor said it was the president’s “greatest failing.” He added, “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon.”

Big Differences

The debate was perhaps most interesting for the contrasts it laid bare. For instance, the candidates diverged about whether waterboarding amounted to torture. “”Yes, I would return to that policy. I don’t see it as torture,” Cain said.

Not so, according to Ron Paul: “Well, waterboarding is torture. It’s also immoral.” Rick Perry took Cain’s side: “For us not to have the ability to try to extract information from them to save our young people’s lives is a travesty,” Perry said, adding: “I am for using those techniques.” (Romney was not asked the question specifically but a campaign strategist said he does not believe the interrogation technique constitutes torture.)

The candidates also offered different points of view on everything from the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq to foreign assistance. More in Matthew Jaffe’s wrap up of Saturday night’s showdown.