WASHINGTON – The Republican presidential candidates sparred over national security in a debate Tuesday night that largely highlighted Iran, Pakistan and the U.S. ability to protect itself in the face of harrowing debt, with the hopefuls directing several of their punches at Washington's inability to govern.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said that the Super Committee's failure to come up with $1.2 trillion in savings in the face of massive borrowing and debt only puts the country at greater risk.
"Our money will be used to grow China's military at the expense of America's military," she said. "That should give everyone pause."
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, said Congress is being forced to cut billions from the defense budget and is going about it by cutting weapons, cruisers, airplanes and troops at the expense of security.
"The list goes on. They're cutting programs that are cutting the capacity of America to defend itself," he said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry was harshly critical of the magnitude of potential cuts saying the Obama administration's Pentagon chief, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, had called them irresponsible.
"If he's a man of honor he should resign in protest," Perry said.
Neither man specified if they support any cuts in the Pentagon's accounts, but Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman both indicated the topic should be on the table as budget-cutters look for savings.
Only Rep. Ron Paul of Texas called the conversation mythical.
"They're not cutting anything out of anything. All this talk is just talk," he said.
The eight Republican candidates disagreed about the role of immigration as well, with Gingrich, the former House speaker who has shot up in the polls since the last debate, saying that illegal immigrants who've set down ties in the U.S. and lived in the country for decades are not going to be deported even if those who have not set down roots are sent away.
"The party that says it's the party of family is going to adopt a policy that separates families," he said.
That set off Bachmann and Romney, who said "amnesty is a magnet" that only encourages more people to come here illegally.
Perry pledged as president he would shut down the border within 12 months of taking office.
His approach to a secure border includes "strategic fencing, with the boots on the ground, with the aviation assets," and then "putting sanctions against the banks," he said.
Earlier in the debate, Bachmann struck a glancing blow against Perry, labeling him "highly naive" for suggesting the U.S. abandon its aid and investment in Pakistan, the centerpiece of U.S. anti-terror strategy.
Bachmann was responding to Perry, who said he would cut aid to the nation. Pakistan has shown "time after time" that it cannot be trusted, he said.
"And until Pakistan clearly shows that they have America's best interests in mind, I would not send them one penny, period," Perry added.
Calling the nation that was home to Usama bin Laden at the time of his death by Navy SEAL, "too nuclear to fail," Bachmann said that the U.S. can't turn its back on Pakistan, which is the launching pad for Taliban terrorists who are attacking U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan.
But, she added, "I do think that the Obama policy of keeping your fingers crossed is not working in Pakistan."
Gingrich said the discussion has been diluted because Washington frets that our capturing bin Laden angered the Pakistanis and brought relations to a new low.
"It should have, we should be furious," Gingrich said.
The lawmakers also supported the anti-terror Patriot Act, saying it should be extended or perhaps strengthened to help identify and capture those who would attack the United States.
Only Paul dissented, warning that the law is "unpatriotic because it undermines our liberties."
"Today it seems too easy that our government and our Congresses are so willing to give up our liberties for our security, I have a belief that you never have to give up liberty for security. You can still provide security without sacrificing our Bill of Rights." Paul said, adding that other investigative techniques captured Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Gingrich jumped at that, noting that McVeigh was caught after the fact.
"Timothy McVeigh killed a lot of Americans," he said. "I don't want a law that says after we lose an entire American city we're going to find you."
Tuesday's debate, which focused on national security was taking place just a few blocks from the building the candidates are hoping to take up residence -- the White House. The event at DAR Constitution Hall was co-hosted by the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute. It comes six weeks to the day before the Iowa caucuses begin the countdown to choosing a nominee to challenge President Obama.
On other topics, Huntsman, the former Utah governor and a U.S. ambassador to China, said he would leave behind as many as 15,000 forces to help Afghans maintain their security. But his views led Romney to argue that the U.S. has to finish what it started, and make sure the country isn't lost to terrorists.
"We spent about $450 billion so far, 1,700 or so service men and women have lost their lives there, and many tens of thousands have been wounded. Our effort there is to keep Afghanistan from becoming a launching point for terror against the United States. We can't just write off a major part of the world," he said.
"We are fighting a war against radical Islam," added Rick Santorum, who was a member of the Senate's foreign relations panel when he represented Pennsylvania in the chamber. "And what radical Islam is telling -- all of the radical Islamist leaders are saying is that just wait America out, America is weak, they will not stand for the fight, they cannot maintain this, they'll set time limits, politics will interfere, and we will tell the people in Afghanistan, we will tell the people in Iraq and other places that we will be the strong horse in the region."
Romney added that his first foreign trip as president, if elected, would be to Israel to show that country and the rest of the world that the two nations still stand together.
Most Republican presidential hopefuls agreed that sanctions on Iran are a good first step. But they disagreed over whether to protect Israel from Iran. Paul said that country can take care of itself, and should, since the U.S. can neither afford new wars nor create situations that cause further international discord.
Gingrich, however, disagreed saying if he had a choice of using a conventional campaign with Israel or letting that country go it alone and possibly see a nuclear war in the region, he would choose the conventional campaign.
"That would be a future none of us would want to live through," Gingrich said, adding that he would not permit a bombing campaign that leaves the regime in place.
Businessman Herman Cain said Iran must be contained not only for Israel's stake.
"If we pull out of Afghanistan too soon, Iran is going to help to fulfill that power vacuum in Afghanistan. And so it is in our best interests, the United States of America, to prevent them from being able to help fill that power vacuum in Afghanistan," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.