AUDIE CORNISH, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
Last night, Republican White House hopefuls met yet again. This time, for the first of the year's debates to put foreign policy center stage. The candidates criticized President Obama's handling of Iran, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring. And although the candidates aimed most of their firepower at the president, the forum exposed some fault lines within the Republican ranks.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY: It was billed as the Commander in Chief debate. And while President Obama earns higher marks for his role commander in chief than he does overall, the Republican hopefuls found plenty to criticize, beginning with Iran. A report from the International Atomic Energy Agency this past week ratcheted up concern that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney calls that the Obama administration's greatest foreign policy failure.
MITT ROMNEY: If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you elect me as your next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.
HORSLEY: Romney suggests the White House should do more to support Iran's political opposition and impose even tougher economic sanctions.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum wants to go further.
RICK SANTORUM: We should be working with Israel right now to do what they did in Syria, what they did in Iraq, which is take out that nuclear capability before the next explosion we hear in Iran is a nuclear one.
HORSLEY: And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich adds the U.S. should use covert operatives to go after Iran's nuclear scientists.
NEWT GINGRICH: There are a number of ways to be smart about Iran and relatively few ways to be dumb, and the administration's skipped all the ways to be smart.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HORSLEY: After his campaign got off to a slow start, Gingrich is enjoying a resurgence lately. A new CBS poll shows him running neck and neck with Romney, just behind the Herman Cain.
On Friday, Gingrich called Romney a good manager, but not someone who could fundamentally change Washington. Asked to elaborate last night, Gingrich wouldn't take the bait.
GINGRICH: We're here tonight, talking to the American people about why every single one of us is better than Barack Obama.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
GINGRICH: And that's a topic I'd rather...
HORSLEY: But even though the Republicans largely refrained from attacking one another last night, some clear differences emerged on the issue of torture, for example. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann defended harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding.
REPRESENTATIVE MICHELE BACHMANN REPUBLICAN, MINNESOTA: And I think it was very effective. It gained information for our country. And I also would like to say that today, under Barack Obama, he has allowed an ACLU to run the CIA.
HORSLEY: But Texas Congressman Ron Paul called waterboarding torture.
REPRESENTATIVE RON PAUL REPUBLICAN, TEXAS: It's illegal under international law and under our law. It's also immoral. And it's also very impractical. There no evidence that you really get reliable evidence.
HORSLEY: Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman also rejected waterboarding. And while some of his fellow Republicans criticize President Obama for pulling troops out of Afghanistan too quickly, Huntsman called for an even deeper drawdown.
JON HUNTSMAN REPUBLICAN, FORMER UTAH GOVERNOR: I don't want to be nation-building in Afghanistan when this nation so desperately needs to be built.
HORSLEY: Texas Governor Rick Perry is still smarting from the previous debate, when he was unable to remember one of three federal departments he wants to eliminate. CBS newsman Scott Pelley asked Perry last night how that streamlining would affect oversight of the nation's nuclear weapons.
SCOTT PELLEY: Governor Perry, you advocate elimination of the Department of Energy. If you eliminate the Department of Energy...
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Glad you remembered it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HORSLEY: Perry suffered no serious memory lapses last night, and he mostly stuck to familiar talking points, even if they bore little relation to the questions. Asked why Pakistan seems to be playing a double-game with the United States, Perry instead talked about reducing foreign aid.
PERRY: The foreign aid budget in my administration, for every country, is going to start at zero dollars.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
PERRY: Zero dollars, and then we'll have a conversation.
HORSLEY: Perry later clarified that U.S. aid to Israel would likely be maintained.
Front-runner Herman Cain has been frank in the past about the limits of his foreign policy knowledge, arguing that's less important than his ability to create jobs. More than once last night, Cain said he'd defer to military leaders and other advisors, on questions like whether to use force to clear out terrorist safe havens in Pakistan.
HERMAN CAIN: That is a decision that I would make after consulting with the commanders on the ground, our intelligence sources, after having discussions with Pakistan. Pakistan is one of the nine nations that has a nuclear weapon.
HORSLEY: Cain remains at or near the top in national opinion polls. But when the Democratic National Committee issued their response to last night's debate, all of their critiques were aimed at Romney.
Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.