Republicans considering a White House run criticized President Barack Obama’s leadership on national security in the primary campaign’s opening debate, questioning his judgment less than a week after a U.S. raid he authorized killed Osama bin Laden.
At a forum that underscored the unformed nature of the Republican presidential field, five of Obama’s lesser-known prospective rivals sought to tarnish the president’s newly burnished foreign policy credentials following the terrorist mastermind’s death.
Obama “did a good job, and I tip my cap to him in that moment,” former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said in the debate yesterday, sponsored by the South Carolina Republican Party and broadcast live on the Fox News cable television channel.
Pawlenty said, though, that the president has made the wrong calls on other national-security issues including Libya, where he argued that Obama had limited U.S. options for ousting leader Muammar Qaddafi by being overly deferential to other nations.
“He made a decision to subordinate our decision-making to the United Nations,” Pawlenty said. He later called the UN a “pathetic organization.”
Pawlenty, 50, was joined by four others at a gathering at the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina, that lacked potential candidates with more celebrity star power and better standing in public polls.
Among those absent were former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and real estate developer Donald Trump. Also absent were two of those who have led in much of the early polling of potential candidates -- former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.
That gave those present a chance to try to distinguish themselves during the 90-minute debate in hopes of becoming serious contenders in the nominating contests that start early next year.
Pawlenty described himself as a can-do child of a “working-class family in a meatpacking town.” U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas presented unapologetically libertarian views in a sometimes-humorous way, at one point defending his support for legalizing heroin to laughter and applause.
Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania called himself the true conservative on the Republican roster. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson bristled at one point when he said he wasn’t getting enough shots at answering questions, while Herman Cain, a onetime chairman of Godfather’s Pizza, drew several rounds of audience applause with his answers.
In one such instance, Cain said he was “proud of the fact” that he has never held an elective office. “Because I ask people, ‘Most of the people that are in elective office in Washington, D.C., they have held public office before -- how’s that working for ya?’” he said.
On national security, Santorum, 52, said Obama’s only successes have piggybacked on his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush.
“If you look at what President Obama has done right in foreign policy, it has always been a continuation of the Bush policies,” Santorum said. “He’s done right by finishing the job in Iraq. He’s done right by trying to win in Afghanistan. Those were existing policies that were in place.”
On other foreign policy matters, Obama has “gotten it wrong” every time, he added.
With the exception of Cain, all of those on the stage said that if they had been in the White House, they would have made the opposite call to Obama’s and released a photo of bin Laden’s corpse.
Speaking to reporters today, Pawlenty said there are “good arguments to be made on both sides” of the issue, and that he doesn’t think it will be a significant election factor.
“There is a public interest in the photographs,” Pawlenty said. “I don’t think the president needs to be the censor-in-chief, absent a clear national security or need for it to be secret or confidential.”
On the debate stage, Santorum, Cain and Pawlenty raised their hands to indicate that they would support the resumption of a banned torture technique known as waterboarding under some circumstances.
With the al-Qaeda leader dead, Paul called on the U.S. to remove troops from Afghanistan.
“It is a wonderful time for this country now to reassess it, and get the troops out of Afghanistan, and end that war that hasn’t helped us and hasn’t helped anybody in the Middle East,” said Paul, 75, chairman of the House Financial Services subcommittee that oversees the Federal Reserve.
At a time of economic uncertainty and high gas prices, the candidates all advocated lower taxes and less spending as essential steps to create jobs, positions that are at the core of Republican orthodoxy.
On an issue generating controversy in South Carolina, Pawlenty and Cain criticized a decision by the National Labor Relations Board to file a union-retaliation complaint against Boeing Co. for building an airplane factory in the state rather than a more union-friendly one.
“It’s a preposterous decision and position of this administration,” Pawlenty said. “The idea that the federal government can tell a private business where they can be and not be in the United States of America is a whole new line that this administration has crossed.”
Paul later blamed the Federal Reserve for the largest recession since the Great Depression.
“We have not had the necessary correction for the financial bubble, created by our Federal Reserve system, and until you allow the correction and the liquidation of debt, you can’t have growth,” he said.
Johnson, 58, was booed by the debate audience when he said he supports abortion rights. “I support a woman’s right to choose up until viability of the fetus,” he said, adding that he opposes public money being used to pay for abortions.
Santorum was asked to comment on a statement made last year by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, another potential presidential candidate, who said the next president “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues” until the economic crisis is resolved.
“Anybody that would suggest that we call a truce on the moral issues doesn’t understand what America is all about,” Santorum said. He said the sanctity of marriage and protecting life stemmed from the nation’s fundamental founding principles and added, “If we abandon that, we have given up on America.”
Cain, who supported Romney in 2008, said he was running because his party needs new faces.
“Back then, I saw his business experience,” he said. “I’m running now, rather than supporting Mr. Romney, because he did not win, so I’m going to try my time.”
Republicans had been focusing more on domestic policy than foreign policy in making their cases against Obama before last night’s debate, spotlighting rising gasoline prices, the shaky U.S. economy and a national debt approaching $14.3 trillion.
First Quarter Slowdown
The economy slowed more than forecast in the first quarter of this year as government spending declined by the greatest amount since 1983 and household purchases cooled. Gross domestic product rose at a 1.8 percent annual rate from January through March, down from 3.1 percent in the final three months of 2010.
The president today, in an appearance in Indiana, touted a Labor Department report showing private sector payrolls increased by 268,000 workers in April. The unemployment rate rose to 9 percent, from 8.8 percent in March, the first increase since November. Companies have added 2.1 million jobs since February 2010 after losing 8.8 million during the recession.
Some of those who didn’t participate in yesterday’s debate said it was too early in the election cycle for such a session, especially when they haven’t decided whether they will run.
Other potential candidates who weren’t present were Daniels, U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, and Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who resigned last month as the U.S. ambassador to China.
At 18 percent, Romney led in a Quinnipiac University poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents released May 4. Tied for second were Huckabee and Palin, with 15 percent, followed by Trump at 12 percent.
Among those on the debate stage, Paul had 5 percent, Pawlenty 4 percent, and Santorum and Johnson each had 1 percent. Cain wasn’t included in the survey by the Hamden, Connecticut-based university.
The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus four percentage points for its questions on the Republican race.
Huntsman, who created a federal political action committee on May 3 as a possible prelude to a presidential candidacy, is scheduled to speak in South Carolina on May 7, his first public speech since returning to the U.S.
The Associated Press decided not to cover the debate to protest limits placed on media coverage by its organizers. The AP said in a news report about the dispute that the sponsors blocked still photographers from entering the debate hall.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at email@example.com