Republican presidential hopefuls sharply criticized President Obama's efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions Saturday night as too weak but disagreed in campaign debate whether the United States would be justified in a pre-emptive military strike.
In like manner, they slammed Obama but differed among themselves on Afghanistan, torture and more.
"If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon," the former Massachusetts governor declared.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich quickly agreed, saying that if all other steps failed, "you have to take whatever steps are necessary" to prevent the Islamic regime from gaining a nuclear weapon.
While the Republicans were talking about foreign policy, Obama countered with high-level diplomacy. After meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Hawaii, he said the two men intend to "shape a common response" to new allegations Iran has been covertly trying to build a nuclear bomb.
On a debate stage half a world away, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas differed with Romney and Perry, opposing the suggestion that a president alone should order an attack on Iran to prevent development of a nuclear weapon.
He said that if America's security is threatened the president must ask Congress for a formal declaration of war before taking military action.
The question was the first in a 90-minute debate devoted to defense and foreign policy, an event that brought eight would-be commanders in chief together on a debate stage for the second time in less than a week.
The war in Afghanistan produced the same response as the question in Iran's nuclear ambitions - unanimous criticism of the president, but differences among the Republicans seeking to take his place.
Jon Huntsman, who was Obama's first ambassador to China, said all U.S. troops should be withdrawn. "I say it's time to come home. I say this nation has achieved its key objectives," he said.
But Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry said they would side with military commanders on the ground about when to withdraw troops. They criticized Obama for "telegraphing" the nation's intentions.
Still, Romney said he supports a full withdrawal by the end of 2014.
"The timetable by the end of 2014 is the right timetable for us to be completely withdrawn from Afghanistan, other than a small footprint of support forces," Romney said.
The debate occurred less than two months before the formal selection of national convention delegates begins on Jan. 3 in the Iowa caucuses, and with the race remarkably jumbled.
Romney has been at or near the top of the public opinion polls for months, while a succession of rivals vying to emerge as his principal challenger has risen and fallen in turn.
The latest soundings show Herman Cain the current leader in that sweepstakes, although Gingrich has risen significantly in national polls in recent weeks as Perry has fallen back. And while the subject matter of defense and foreign policy didn't readily lend itself to a discussion of the principal campaign controversies, the race has had plenty of them in the past two weeks.
Cain has stoutly denied any and all charges of sexual harassment - four women have leveled accusations - while Perry embarked on an apology tour after failing in a debate Wednesday night to remember the name of the third of three Cabinet-level departments he wants to abolish.
This article was originally published on November 12, 2011.
This program aired on November 12, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.