Saturday night’s Republican debate saw no major stumbles or gaffes, nothing in what CBS News and the National Journal ostentatiously called “The Commander-in-Chief Debate” that any of the contenders is going to have to spend the rest of the week explaining.
In fact, of all the (it only seems like) hundreds of debates so far, this one seemed the most substantial, focusing on national security and foreign affairs – life-and-death issues that President Obama polls relatively well in.
While the range of differences stretched from tough to tougher – except for Ron Paul’s isolationism and Jon Huntsman's more experienced, more nuanced outlook – there were points at which differences were highlighted.
Still, nothing happened to alter the basic candidate ranking as post-debate polls are likely to show – Mitt Romney and Herman Cain neck-and-neck at the top and Newt Gingrich enjoying a boomlet that may or may not last.
“The debate illustrated again that the divide in the GOP presidential field on foreign policy is between those who know what they are talking about and those who don’t,” observed Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of the neoconservative Commentary magazine.
“A clear grasp of war and peace issues won’t transform Rick Santorum into a first tier candidate from an also-ran,” Tobin blogged following the debate. “But his lack of command of the issues does make it difficult, if not impossible, for Herman Cain to put forward a plausible argument for himself as a potential president…. While it must be admitted that he’s come a long way from the comical ignorance he displayed on this topic when he began his campaign, he still came across as the weakest of all the contenders.”
Unable to tout his signature “9-9-9” tax scheme (although he did throw in another “9” citing what he said are the number of countries with nuclear weapons) or to exhibit his folksy style, which would have seemed inappropriate given the debate’s focus, Cain fell back on the cautious and fuzzy.
Several times when debate moderators tried to pin him down, he said he’d have to consult with military commanders – “a dodge that allowed him to avoid being drawn into several topics moderators pressed on,” as Jonathan Martin and Ginger Gibson at Politico.com put it.
Cain is definitely against torture, he said, although that does not include waterboarding as “enhanced interrogation.”
Here was a subject on which Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman stood out as the only ones opposed to the controversial interrogation procedure banned under international law, opposed by former POW Sen. John McCain, and for which Japanese officers were prosecuted by the United States after World War II.
Rep. Paul called waterboarding “immoral” and “impractical.”
"We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project, which include liberty, democracy, human rights and open markets, when we torture," Huntsman said. "We lose that ability to project values that a lot of people in corners of this world are still relying on the United States to stand up for."
Most of the presidential hopefuls applauded the recent killing of major Al Qaeda figures, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. (Again, Ron Paul was the major exception.) That and the winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – favored by most Americans – made it harder for them to criticize the Obama administration on its approach to terrorism.
"I don't think there's a very strong narrative," Bush administration spokesman Tony Fratto told the Associated Press. "Is it a significant issue for a majority of Republican voters? No. It's not."
But recent reports of Iran’s activities to develop nuclear weapons gave an opening to threaten tougher sanctions and even a US military strike.
"If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon," said Romney.
Rick Perry’s most memorable point of the evening was his statement that “every country is going to start at zero dollars” in American foreign aid. “Does that include Israel,” the moderator quickly asked? “Absolutely,” Perry said.
“Obviously Israel is a special ally and my bet is we would be funding them at some substantial level,” he said. “But it makes sense for everyone to come in at zero and make your case.”
Heading off what could have been seen as anything less than full support of Israel – an essential for any American politician seeking national office – @PerryTruthTeam quickly tweeted, “Perry is a friend to Israel, understands challenges faced by the country.”
Still, the comment drew criticism.
“Perry's idea is bad news for Israel and shows how little he understands its needs,” wrote former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, now a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution.
Perry’s proposal “would have a very disruptive impact on Israeli military planning and Israeli security,” Riedel wrote at Newsweek’s Daily Beast web site. “The reality is military budgets are planned on a multi-year cycle. Friends don't rethink their friendships each fiscal year.”