WASHINGTON – The five remaining Republican presidential hopefuls gathered in Myrtle Beach early Tuesday (Israel time) for the first of two debates in South Carolina in the run-up to this weekend's primary.
According to a Facebook poll conducted with the POLITICO website, 76% of voters in the state's Jan. 21 primary named the economy as the issue that will "most influence" their vote. Of the other issues listed, just 16% chose "social issues" and 8% chose "national security."
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During the televised debate, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry criticized US President Barack Obama's policy towards Israel, while the audience booed when Texas Rep. Ron Paul called for a “golden rule” in American foreign policy.
"My point is, that if another country does to us what we do to others, we aren’t going to like it very much. So I would say maybe we ought to consider a golden rule in foreign policy," Paul said as the crowd jeered. "We endlessly bomb these other countries and then we wonder why they get upset with us?"
Paul warned against a policy of "pre-emptive war" without Congress declaring war, and claimed the US is getting ready to "go to war with Iran."
During a discussion on Afghanistan and the Taliban, Paul said the United States should be careful about intervening in foreign lands.
"This country doesn't need another war," he said. "We need to quit the ones we're in."
In response to a question about the “major” defense cuts he wants to make, the Texas representative brought up an example of spending a billion dollars on an embassy in Baghdad. He said, "You consider that defense spending. I consider that waste." He reiterated that "we need to have a strong national defense but we don’t get strength by diluting ourselves in 900 bases, 130 countries."
"We’re supposed to be conservative, spend less money," Paul added.
Frontrunner Mitt Romney vowed not to allow defense budget cuts such as those Obama is seeking, saying the US needs a large army. He said the United States should not negotiate with the Taliban and criticized the Obama administration for efforts to broker secret talks with the Afghan insurgents.
"The right course for America is not to negotiate with the Taliban while the Taliban are killing our soldiers," Romney said. "The right course is to recognize that they are the enemy of the United States."
Romney said Obama had put the United States in a position of "extraordinary weakness" because he had made a decision based on a political calendar on when to pull US troops out of Afghanistan and because he has even publicly announced the date when the United States would completely withdraw from the country.
"We don't negotiate from a position of weakness as we are pulling our troops out," Romney said. "We should not negotiate with the Taliban. We should defeat the Taliban."
Santorum, who is considered the most conservative candidate, accused the American president of attempting to isolate Israel.
Asked about how he would deal with Syria, the former senator said, "Syria and (President Bashar) Assad are a threat to Israel" and argued that it's time to rally the international community to remove Assad from power and be "more aggressive" in following through with different policies.
Perry, on his part, questioned Turkey’s place in NATO, claiming it is "being ruled by what many would perceive to be Islamic terrorists."
"The murder rate of women has increased 1,400% since the Islamist-oriented party took over," Perry said of Turkey, adding it had "threatened military force against both Israel and Cyprus," and yet it is still a member of NATO.
Just hours before the debate former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman dropped out of the Republican race and endorsed Romney, bolstering his drive for his party's nomination. Romney won the first two state nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire this month.
Romney leads polls in South Carolina, and a win there on Saturday would put him on an almost certain path to clinching the nomination to face Obama in November.
The candidates will get another crack at Romney at a debate in Charleston on Thursday, less than 48 hours before South Carolina Republicans start voting.
Reuters, AP and other news agencies contributed to the report
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