Republican rivals lose their way on foreign affairs

Newt Gingrich shines in latest TV debate as his opponents make series of bizarre gaffes

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Newt Gingrich, who is riding high in the polls, took centre stage in a debate between the candidates for the Republican nomination, flaunting the relative depth of his national security experience even if he courted trouble with an answer on immigration likely to enrage conservatives.

In the grand environs of Constitution Hall, blocks from the White House, the eight candidates arrived for a debate focused on foreign affairs. Their conversation was predictably hawkish but also fractured by significant differences of view. At no point did anyone think to raise Russia or Europe and its problems.

And for even armchair scholars of foreign affairs there were some eyebrow-raising exchanges. Rick Santorum, a former senator, called Africa a country. Herman Cain, a businessman, said a strike by Israel against Iran might fail because it has mountains. Rick Perry, the Texas Governor, spoke of the "absolute failure" of intelligence gathering under President Barack Obama, the killing of Osama bin Laden notwithstanding. Mr Gingrich said electro-magnetic pulse attacks might be an existential threat to America.

The debate, sponsored by CNN and two conservative think-tanks, showed that the field has no unity of vision on dealing with the world's trouble spots. They clashed on topics ranging from Iran and Pakistan and drawing down troops in Afghanistan. That some might still need training wheels – Governor Rick Perry got little support when he proposed a no-fly zone over Syria – may also do little to burnish the image of the party of Reagan.

"This is early and it takes time" to get up to speed on national security affairs, said retired General Wesley Clark, who, though a Democrat, was in the debate audience.

Mitt Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts, showed no great nervousness toward Mr Gingrich, who has caught up with him in the polls. A rather soggy Mr Romney came alive when Jon Huntsman proposed withdrawing from Afghanistan faster. "We don't need 100,000 troops," he asserted. "This is not time for America to cut and run," Mr Romney replied. As for Mr Perry's no-fly zone, Mr Romney also offered that a "no-drive zone" might work better in Syria, where tanks, not planes, are the main tools of repression.

Mr Gingrich often hogged the camera with his knowledge of foreign affairs. Yet he wilfully strode into the perilous terrain of immigration policy saying that he would not attempt to deport illegal aliens who had been in the country for 25 years, were law-abiding, tax-paying and belonged to a "local church".

"I'm prepared to take the heat for saying lets be humane in enforcing the law," he said, adding that Republicans were the party of the family. Michele Bachmann hit back: "I think the speaker just said that he would make 11 million people who are here illegally, legal."

Appearing soft on immigration has cost Mr Perry dearly among conservatives. Yet Mr Gingrich in interviews stood by what he had said. It remains to be seen whether he will earn points for consistency – and humanity – or if voters who have flocked to him will now turn away.