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Republican Presidential Contenders Debate Iran, Domestic Issues

U.S. Republican presidential candidates (L to R) U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich stand for the National Anthem before the start of the Republica

The four remaining Republican presidential candidates took part in a televised debate late Wednesday in Arizona, one of two states holding Republican primary elections next Tuesday. Most of the debate dealt with domestic issues but, Iran’s nuclear capability did spark a lively exchange among the contenders.

After nearly a month without a Republican debate, the four remaining contenders took to a stage in Mesa, Arizona, for a testy debate that covered a wide range of issues including taxes, government spending and illegal immigration.

But near the end the debate did delve into foreign policy and in particular how the United States should deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Three of the four Republican contenders took a tough line on Iran and criticized the Obama administration for not doing enough to pressure Tehran on its nuclear program.

Among them was former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who now leads the Republican field in national public opinion polls.

“When they are going up against a dangerous theocratic regime that wants to wipe out the state of Israel, that wants to dominate the radical Islamic world and take on the ‘Great Satan’, the United States, we do nothing. That is a president who must go and you want a leader who will take them on. I will do that,” he said.

Santorum’s main Republican rival is former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who faces a critical challenge in next week’s Michigan primary, the state where Romney grew up.

Romney also took a tough line on U.S. policy toward Iran.

“But nothing in my view is as serious a failure as his failure to deal with Iran appropriately. This president should have put in place crippling sanctions against Iran. He did not,” Romney said.

Former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich has fallen behind in the polls but remains in the race. Gingrich hopes to have a breakthrough on March 6th when his home state of Georgia and nine other states will vote in the so-called Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses.

Gingrich also advocated a tough line on Iran during the debate.

“If you think a madman is about to have nuclear weapons and you think that madman is going to use those nuclear weapons, then you have an absolute moral obligation to defend the lives of your people by eliminating the capacity to get nuclear weapons,” he said.

Only one of the four Republican candidates had a different view on Iran policy. Texas Congressman Ron Paul opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and says he would not favor another U.S. military involvement in the Middle East.

“I disagree because we don’t know if they have a weapon. Matter of fact there is no evidence they have it. Israel claims they do not have it and our government doesn’t. I don’t want them to have a weapon but I think what we are doing is encouraging them to have a weapon because they feel threatened.”

The debate was the last showdown for the candidates before next Tuesday’s primaries in Arizona and Michigan, and the 10 Super Tuesday contests on March 6th.

So far, three of the four contenders have won at least one primary or caucus vote but none of them have established any consistent political momentum or forged a large lead in the delegate count that will determine the Republican nominee at the party’s presidential nominating convention in Tampa, Florida, in late August.

Political experts say if the trend continues the Republican race could go on right up until the end of the primary season in early June.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.