SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Rick Perry forcefully reasserted himself in the GOP presidential contest Saturday night during a foreign policy debate here, an event that came on the heels of a string of sloppy — and even embarrassing — debate performances by the onetime front-runner.

The eight candidates on stage for the 90-minute CBS/National Journal debate at Wofford College argued over whether the United States should use enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding to extract information from suspected or known terrorists, and led by Perry, they piled on Texas Rep. Ron Paul for his opposition to the practice. They also discussed at length how foreign aid should be dispatched going forward, with several of the leading candidates backing a new idea that Perry put forth.

 Two of the Texas governor’s chief rivals for the nomination, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, agreed with him on what appeared to be an off-the-cuff, but conservative, approach to foreign aid: Start all countries at zero and then make each explain why it deserves more. A follow-up question, however, forced Perry to backpedal somewhat on U.S. aid to Israel.

“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,” Perry said. His campaign followed that comment by issuing a seven-paragraph statement detailing the candidate’s commitment to Israel, something he has been consistent about throughout his political career.

Still, Gingrich backed up Perry’s principle. He pointed to Egypt and questioned why it should receive $3 billion before it even starts thinking about how the money will be used. Each country should be told, “Explain to me why we need to give you a penny,” he said.

Later in the program, Romney also agreed with the proposal. But after the debate, his advisers backtracked and insisted he only meant he agreed with respect to Pakistan, in part because it is a divided nuclear power that necessitates a careful approach.

That was not the only exchange that required some clarification from Romney’s team. He’s also struggled to explain his stance on the war in Afghanistan. In the past, he has said he wanted troops to come home as soon as possible, and he later said he disagreed with President Obama’s call to begin pulling them back in the fall of 2012, blasting it as a political decision. And he’s also decried the use of timetables for announcing any drawdown of U.S. troops abroad. During Saturday’s debate, though, he said he agreed with a 2014-based timetable.

Romney foreign policy adviser Rich Williamson, a former Reagan administration official, clarified that the former Massachusetts governor opposed any kind of initial timeline that would notify the Taliban as to when American troops would leave their country and simply suggested that he would defer to military leaders regarding an exit timeline.

The issue wasn’t a smooth one for Perry, though, when moderator Scott Pelley of CBS asked him to appraise the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and he offered a general response, suggesting only that there has been some progress.

Perry did manage to distinguish himself in several other ways, including U.S. policy on Iran. Recent reports suggest that the so-called rogue nation is closer than ever to developing a nuclear weapon. “The issue that has not been raised is that this country can sanction the Iranian Central Bank right now and shut down that country’s economy,” Perry said.

For his part, Romney said a weak approach to the Iranian nuclear threat has surfaced as President Obama’s “greatest failing” in foreign policy. He favors sanctions to cripple Iran and would be willing to use military force in necessary.

The torture and waterboarding exchanges landed Ron Paul in his rivals’ line of fire. Perry offered the most impassioned defense of waterboarding as an enhanced interrogation technique: “In 1972, I volunteered to serve the United States Air Force. And the idea that we have our young men and women in combat today . . . where there are people who would kill them in a heartbeat, under any circumstance, use any technique that they can, for us not to have the ability to try to extract information from them, to save our young people’s lives, is a travesty. This is war. That’s what happens in war. And I am for using the techniques, not torture, but using those techniques that we know will extract the information to save young American lives. And I will be for it until I die.”

Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum separated themselves from the rest of the pack on how the United States should approach Pakistan, and whether that nation is a friend or a foe. While Herman Cain said he didn’t know, and Mitt Romney said America should tread carefully, Bachmann and Santorum said Pakistan must be treated as a friend.

Cain, who has enjoyed front-runner status in the race for several weeks, performed with a notable lack of confidence and spoke with a much slower cadence than he has regularly employed during the other debates. He said multiple times that he would surround himself with capable advisers, which has been a standard line for him throughout the campaign.

Jon Huntsman, the candidate with the deepest experience in foreign affairs, made a rare appearance after the debate in the media “spin room” to expound on his views of international matters. He complained during the debate that he was stuck in “Siberia” — off to the side of the stage — and wasn’t getting much time to talk. Santorum, among the most hawkish of the candidates on stage, also appeared in the spin room several minutes after the debate concluded.

A question was posed to Perry toward the end of the forum about how the United States should respond to the worsening debt crisis in the Eurozone, but the clock ran out before he got to complete his answer. None of the other candidates addressed the issue.

And although the candidates discussed new approaches to foreign aid at length, missing from the debate was any mention of defense cuts.

Kevin Kellems, an Indiana-based former adviser to Dick Cheney, complained that “Americans were denied a robust discussion of how to execute a successful national security policy while reforming defense spending during a fiscal crisis. Having Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour on the stage could have made a difference.”

Another foreign policy debate is scheduled Nov. 22 in Washington, D.C. CNN, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute will host the event.


Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at

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