Newt Holds Court

Republican presidential candidates clashed Tuesday on when to pull U.S. troops from Afghanistan, how to approach a hostile regime in Iran and whether to accede to cuts in the Pentagon budget as they sought to define themselves on national security issues.

In the spotlight: Republican presidential candidates include Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rep. Michele Bachmann applaud before Tuesday night’s debate begins at Constitution Hall in Washington. Much of the attention was focused on Gingrich.

Just six weeks before the opening Iowa caucuses, the contenders drew clearer contrasts and challenged one another more sharply than before in a debate focused on foreign policy and national security issues.

Much of the attention was on a new front-runner, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who toward the end of the two-hour forum waded into one of the most contentious issues in Republican politics: Immigration.

“I’m prepared to take the heat for saying, ‘Let’s be humane about enforcing the law,’ ” Gingrich said, saying some illegal immigrants who had been in the United States for a long time should be able to gain legal status. Such a policy would protect families, he said.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann immediately criticized the proposal as a “magnet” that would draw more illegal immigrants to this country.

There were other disputes.

Bachmann called Texas Gov. Rick Perry “highly naive” in calling for a cut-off of U.S. aid to Pakistan and other countries that don’t support the United States. Romney and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman sparred on maintaining U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

And former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain said he would consider having the United States join Israel in bombing suspected Iranian nuclear facilities, an idea that Texas Rep. Ron Paul warned would be dangerous and unwise.

The evening featured a reconfigured Republican field.

In the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll released Monday, Gingrich edged Romney for the lead by a single, statistically insignificant percentage point, 22%-21% — making him the sixth candidate or potential candidate to top the field this year in a roller coaster race.

He is the latest contender to benefit from a search by some Republican voters, including more conservative ones, for an alternative to Romney.

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SOURCE: USA Today | Susan Page and Jackie Kucinich

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