WASHINGTON — Republican presidential hopefuls spoke up strongly for the anti-terror Patriot Act in campaign debate Tuesday night, saying it should be extended or perhaps strengthened to help identify and capture those who would attack the United States.
Only Rep. Ron Paul of Texas among eight presidential hopefuls dissented, arguing that the law is "unpatriotic because it undermines our liberties."
In a debate on national security, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said President Barack Obama has "essentially handed over our investigation of terrorists to the" American Civil Liberties Union. "Our CIA has no ability to investigate," she said. Bachmann did not cite any examples to buttress either of her claims.
The debate unfolded six weeks to the day before the Iowa caucuses inaugurate the competition for delegates to the Republican National Convention. The venerable DAR Constitution Hall was the site — a few blocks from the White House and as close as most if not all of the GOP hopefuls are likely to get.
The Patriot Act is one of the nation's principal tools in ferreting out terrorist threats but has often provoked dissents from both liberals and conservatives who argue that in the name of national security it erodes constitutional protections.
Paul made that point, and said other investigative techniques captured Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Gingrich jumped at that. "That's the whole point. Timothy McVeigh killed a lot of Americans," the former House speaker said. "I don't want a law that says after we lose a major American city, we're sure going to come and find you. I want a law that says, you try to take out an American city, we're going to stop you."
Neither Gingrich nor any other Republican mentioned that Obama, like President George W. Bush before him, signed legislation extending the Patriot Act. He did so while traveling in Europe last May, putting him name on a four-year extension of the law that gives the government sweeping powers to search records and conduct wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists.
In a race that is constantly in flux, Gingrich has emerged as Romney's principal rival atop the public opinion polls. As he looked around him, he saw other rivals who once held that position — Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and businessman Herman Cain among them.
The debate ranged widely over foreign policy issues, but neither the format nor the moderator permitted all eight candidates to answer any one question. That produced a somewhat disjoined event in which there was relatively little back-and-forth among the rivals.
Asked if he would support an Israel attack on Iran to prevent the Islamic regime from acquiring a nuclear weapon, Cain said he would want to know what the plan was and have an understanding of its chance of success.
Gingrich said he would bomb Iran only as a last resort and with a goal of bringing about the downfall of the government.
There was more disagreement when it came to the war in Afghanistan.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said it was time for the United States to withdraw nearly all its troops.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said top generals disagreed with that and asked Huntsman if he was talking about a withdrawal beginning immediately.
"Did you hear what I said?" Huntsman asked across the debate stage, noting that under the Constitution the president is commander in chief. A few moments later, referring to Vietnam, he said a president had listened to the generals in 1967, and the outcome was not in the interests of the United States.
Also on the debate stage were businessman Herman Cain and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
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