SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Republican presidential hopefuls lambasted President Barack Obama Saturday night as weak and misguided on the world stage, but differed in a debate over how they would rein in Iran’s reported effort to develop nuclear weapons.
They all said that Obama has failed to stop Iran from working to develop a nuclear warhead, but their prescriptions for what to do differently ranged from increasing sanctions to assassinating Iranian scientists to going to war.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts said he would push “crippling” sanctions first, then work with Iranian dissidents to help them overthrow the government. If neither worked, he said, “then of course you take military action.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he’d order “maximum covert operations … including taking out their scientists … all of it covertly, all of it deniable.” He too said he would not rule out military strikes. “You have to take whatever steps are necessary,” he added.
Businessman Herman Cain of Georgia said he’d assist the opposition movement in Iran to force “regime change.” He said he would deploy U.S. warships near Iran as a show of force, but “I would not entertain military options.”
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said flatly that he would not go to war to stop Iran — and that no president should have the power to order military action without a declaration from Congress.
“I’m afraid what’s going on right now is similar to the war propaganda that went on against Iraq,” Paul said.
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas said he’d order sanctions immediately on the Iranian central bank “and shut down the country’s economy.”
Former Sen. Rick Santorum said the U.S. should work with Israel to help it “take out” the Iranian nuclear facilities as it did once each in Iraq and Syria.
The International Atomic Energy Agency last week reported that Iran is apparently trying to make a nuclear weapon. Iran called the report a lie, but Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States is still waiting for an official response.
On Afghanistan, Romney blasted Obama for bringing “surge” troops home by next September, calling it a political decision to begin ending the war before the 2012 elections. Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota made similar points.
“I say it’s time to come home,” he said, since the U.S. has achieved its objectives and has bigger priorities elsewhere. “This nation’s future is not Afghanistan.”
Asked about the killing of radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen in Yemen, most of the candidates said the president has the power to order the deaths of citizens if they’re deemed to be terrorists. Paul disagreed.
The 90-minute faceoff was televised nationally on CBS, though under an unusual arrangement that cut it off after one hour in most American homes. CBS affiliates in South Carolina and many on the West Coast showed the entire debate, but those in the rest of the country ended coverage at the one-hour mark to allow broadcast of the highly rated entertainment program “NCIS.”
The debate came as Republican voters threaten to shake up the race again. A new McClatchy-Marist poll shows Romney retaking the lead nationally, Gingrich surging into second place, and Cain dropping back to third.
Gingrich, invited to challenge Romney face to face as he has on the campaign trail, refused.
“No,” he said flatly when asked if he wanted to explain his comments that Romney could manage Washington but could not change it profoundly, as Gingrich said he could.
“I brought it up yesterday because it was a national radio show,” he said, adding that the debate was a place to draw contrasts with Obama, not one another.