It was a night long on rhetoric, short on substance as the eight Republican hopefuls squared off yet again, this time at historic Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.
The short version has former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich emerging as the strongest challenger to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the assumed nominee, despite his continued lackluster ratings in the polls.
Gingrich looked calm, confident, and knowledgeable; it was his debate to shine. Other standouts were Congressman Ron Paul, who seemed to be in a different debate entirely, and Congresswoman Michele Bachman, who had numerous opportunities to get her strong opinions front and center.
The stated themes were national security and foreign policy, but the group instead engaged in a lively round of Obama-bashing, coupled with a race to demonstrate who was the toughest, strongest and most hawkish potential commander-in-chief.
Related: Republicans knock Elizabeth Warren for Occupy Wall Street comments
Main topics included illegal immigration, with Gingrich sounding a plea for compassion; Iran, with most of the candidates standing for support for an Israeli strike on the purported nuclear weapons plants in that country; Afghanistan, with spirited barbs about withdrawal; and Pakistan, with the candidates largely at a loss as to how to deal with that troublesome nation.
The debate kicked off with a competition among the group to show the greatest commitment to country and liberty by reaffirming, strengthening and extending the Patriot Act.
Most of the pack was enthusiastic about the measure, passed by the administration of George W. Bush soon after 9/11. It expands the powers of law enforcement and shrinks privacy protections for Americans and visitors, in the name of the Global War on Terror.
Proponents of the Act insist that it has helped foil countless terror plots on US soil; critics argue that its infringement on civil liberties endangers the society it hopes to safeguard.
Congressman Ron Paul underlined just how far he is from the Republican mainstream by making an impassioned plea for liberty at home and disengagement abroad.
“I do not believe we must give up liberty for security!” said Paul, echoing Ben Franklin’s famous dictum that “Anyone who is willing to sacrifice liberty for security deserves neither.”
Paul was emphatic: “The Patriot Act is unpatriotic.”
Related: Cain, Bachmann back waterboarding at Republican debate
But his was a lone voice in a chorus that wanted, if anything, to make the Patriot Act even more stringent.
Gingrich emphasized that the Patriot Act was “a key component” of the post-9/11 world, and warned that without it “we will be in danger for the rest of our lives.”
Bachman agreed, expressing her scorn for niceties such as Miranda warnings and bans on torture by reiterating her belief that “Obama has handed over our interrogations to the ACLU.”
Profiling received a thumbs-up, with Senator Rick Santorum insisting that the United States was at war with radical Islam, and had to act accordingly.
The group tried, at times successfully, to reduce almost every foreign policy question to a debate about the domestic economy, an issue on which they feel that the incumbent president is most vulnerable.
But moderator Wolf Blitzer drew the candidates back, time and again, to concrete questions about foreign policy.
Former Texas Governor Rick Perry called for a no-fly zone over Syria, something that few of the candidates were prepared to back; Romney scoffed at the idea, citing Syria’s preponderance of tanks, calling for a “no-drive zone” instead.
On Afghanistan, candidates differed widely. Paul called for the United States to realize that it could achieve little by trying to “nation-build” there. “We must build our own nation,” he pleaded. He pointed out that the Taliban were simply fighting to repel foreign invaders, and said that our meddling is what provided inspiration and ammunition for Al Qaeda in the region.
Former Ambassador to China John Huntsman supported a speedy withdrawal from Afghanistan as well. But this did not sit well with the others, who tried to juggle budget constraints with a reluctance to be seen to fail.
“This is not the time for America to cut and run,” said Romney, who pointed out that the sacrifices made so far would be for nothing if the United States withdraws too soon.
On Pakistan, Perry again called for a dramatic reduction of aid to an “ally” that had proved unreliable. But Bachman called Perry “naïve” and said that Pakistan was “too nuclear to fail.”
The prospect of Pakistan’s nukes falling into Islamist hands is one that has kept policymakers up at night, and is largely responsible for the more than $4 billion in aid money that continues to flow to a country that is suspected of sponsoring terrorism and attacks against US troops in Afghanistan.
But in spite of all the talk, none of the candidates demonstrated much expertise on any foreign policy subject.
No mention was made of Herman Cain’s rather startling “revelation” last week that the Taliban were about to become a part of Libya’s new government (they are not). In fact, Cain was something of a silent partner at this debate, contributing little of note.
Perry once again insisted that China would end up on “the ash heap of history,” perhaps unaware that he was quoting, not Ronald Reagan, who did in fact use the phrase, but Leon Trotsky, who coined it.
The longest and most heated debate was reserved for illegal immigration.
Much was made of Gingrich’s plea to allow those who had built lives and families in the United States to stay here, even if they had initially come to the country illegally. Bachman insisted that this “opened the door to amnesty,” and many of the panel of debaters soundly rejected the idea.
Commentators speaking after the debate opined that Gingrich’s opinion on this issue could hurt his standing with conservatives in the Republican Party, but Gingrich was unrepentant, saying he was willing to “take the heat” for his remarks.
So the race continues. Some wags have pointed out that, by the time the Republican National Convention rolls around in August, every American will have spent 15 minutes as the Republican frontrunner.
It looks as if Romney will clinch the nomination, despite his low standings in the polls. Most put him at less than 25 percent of the crowded field.
Gingrich has his chance in the sun right now; over past months, Perry, Bachman, and Cain have briefly flashed as the new hope of the GOP.
But all of them need a foreign policy tune-up before any of them has a chance at that coveted commander-in-chief position.