The Republican presidential candidates clashed over illegal immigration and Rick Perry’s idea for a no-fly zone over Syria, but otherwise they focused their ire on Barack Obama and mostly played nice with each other.
As expected, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul stood out for his unorthodox views on foreign policy, which was the focus of the CNN/Heritage Foundation debate. Paul opposes the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and called the war against illegal drugs a huge failure.
Paul was also one of several candidates who opposed the Texas governor’s proposal to unilaterally impose a no-fly zone over Syria.
The Republican congressman from Lake Jackson called the prospective move an “act of war” and said it would bog down the United States in another costly overseas adventure.
“Why should we spend more money and more lives to get involved in another war,” Paul asked. “This is just looking for more trouble. I would say, why don’t we mind our own business?”
Both businessman Herman Cain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also objected to the idea.
“This is not the time for a no-fly zone over Syria,” Romney said flatly.
Perry, who voiced support for the proposal in a Fox News interview Monday, said Syria was partnering with Iran in “exporting terrorism all across that part of the world,” but when pressed he called it “one of the options.”
“I think you need to leave it on the table,” Perry said. In the Fox interview, Perry said he “absolutely” would propose a no-fly zone for the troubled Middle Eastern nation.
“I would not spend a lot of time waiting for the U.N.,” Perry said in the interview.
The candidates predictably criticized Obama for failing to lead the congressional "supercommittee" toward a solution on balancing the budget, and for his dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. But unlike some of the past debates, which featured hot exchanges, the candidates kept their confrontations polite.
The most contentious moments came when former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the newly minted front-runner in the GOP contest, waded into the illegal immigration issue with anything other than a throw-them-out answer.
In a carefully nuanced reply that could land him in trouble with the conservative GOP electorate, Gingrich said he was "prepared to take the heat" for embracing a "humane" policy that would give residency to illegal immigrants who have remained in the U.S. lawfully for more than two decades and have deep family and community ties.
He said it was not realistic to tear apart families and "expel" them.
That brought an animated reply from Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who has struggled to stay relevant. She said the policy would provide legalization to as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants, and her campaign followed up with a press release under the headline "Newt Gingrich's Open Door to Illegal Immigrant Amnesty."
Romney also differed with Gingrich, saying he was against any "magnets" that draw illegal immigrants, including legalization proposals.
Perry seemed to side with Gingrich when he said that it was possible to put a "process in place" that keeps families together. But then he said the whole discussion was a pointless "intellectual exercise," arguing that legalization proposals should not be under consideration until the U.S. border with Mexico is secured.
Perry campaign manager Rob Johnson said the governor had a great performance and was setting the tone for the forum with his strong comments on cutting off the stream of funding to unfriendly countries like Pakistan. He said Perry's comments were frequently "copy-catted" throughout the debate — a good sign.
But in a telling moment in the post-debate "spin room," Perry's name hardly came up by the governor's opponents. Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Romney adviser, fielded repeated questions on immigration where he tried to differentiate Romney from Gingrich, and had nothing to say about one of Perry's pet issues.
Asked if Perry was still a factor, Fehrnstrom shrugged. "Sure he's still a factor. They're all factors."