GOP candidates show sharp differences on national security and terrorism

Clash on civil liberties: The Republican presidential candidates clashed repeatedly over foreign policy and national security issues Tuesday night, revealing clear differences on the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan, aid to Pakistan, the Iranian threat, immigration, and the balance between protecting the homeland and preserving civil liberties.

The debate opened with a clash over the USA Patriot Act and the trade-off between civil liberties and homeland security. Paul called the Patriot Act “unpatriotic.” He said that there is no need to “sacrifice liberty for security” and that the criminal justice system had effectively dealt with Timothy J. McVeigh, who was responsible for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Gingrich responded: “Timothy McVeigh succeeded. That’s the whole point. Timothy McVeigh killed a lot of Americans. 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.”

As part of the discussion, Santorum said he would support profiling “radical Muslims” to prevent terrorist attacks. But he was quickly criticized by Paul, who offered: “What if they look like Timothy McVeigh? He was a tough criminal.”

In anticipation of Tuesday’s debate, the Democrats mounted a full-court press to preemptively challenge Romney and the Republicans and to promote the president’s foreign policy record. Polls show that the public gives Obama good marks on foreign policy and terrorism, in contrast to low numbers on the economy and the deficit.