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Five things we learned from the CNN debate

By Paul Steinhauser and Peter Hamby, CNN
updated 1:39 PM EST, Wed November 23, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gingrich calls for a limited amnesty for longtime illegal immigrants
  • Hunstman and Bachmann shine
  • Debate highlights Ron Paul's lonely antiwar beliefs
  • Herman Cain lays low for most of the debate

Washington (CNN) -- Can a debate without many zingers and gotcha moments be interesting and newsworthy? The answer appears to be yes.

Tuesday night's GOP presidential debate in the nation's capital was short on action, but long on drama. And the debate, like its 10 predecessors so far this campaign season, will most likely have an impact on the race for the Republican nomination.

Here's what we learned from the showdown:

Did Gingrich enter danger zone over immigration reform?: The former House Speaker was having one of his best performances to date, until the issue of immigration reform came up late in the debate. Newt Gingrich called for a limited amnesty for longtime illegal immigrants.

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"I don't see how the party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families which have been here a quarter century," Gingrich said. "And I am prepared to take the heat for saying let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship, but finding a way to give them legality so as not to separate them from their families."

And take heat, he did.

Amnesty is a four-letter word to many in the Republican base. And the other front-runner in the nomination battle, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, was quick to push back against Gingrich, saying that allowing illegal immigrants to stay as legal citizens would only invite more people to try to do the same.

"People respond to incentives," Romney added.

While Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond played down the issue as he was peppered by reporters' questions in the spin room after the debate, the Romney campaign was quick to highlight the controversy.

"I think it's a major difference of opinion between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich," top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters. "Newt Gingrich supported the 1986 amnesty and even though he concedes it was a mistake he's willing to repeat that mistake today by granting amnesty all over again to people who are in the country illegally. Mitt Romney does not."

Huntsman and Bachmann shine: For the candidates stuck in single digits in national and state polling, the debate offered moments for breakout performances. And two of the candidates connected.

Jon Huntsman was on his game. Thanks to a debate that focused heavily on foreign affairs and national security, the former Utah governor and former ambassador to China arguably had his best performance to date.

Huntsman went mano a mano against Romney in arguing for drastic cuts in U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, saying that while he would listen to his military advisers, "at the end of the day, the president of the United States is commander-in-chief."

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Rep. Michele Bachmann had her best debate since her first, back in June in New Hampshire. The congresswoman from Minnesota, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, got questions in her wheelhouse on national security and international affairs. Her standout moment may have been her ringing the alarm bell on the instability of Pakistan's nuclear sites.

"They also are one of the most violent, unstable nations that there is. We have to recognize that 15 of the sites, nuclear sites are available or are potentially penetrable by jihadists," cautioned Bachmann, adding that, "Pakistan is a nation, that it's kind of like 'too nuclear to fail.' "

Ron Paul -- the loneliest man in the GOP: Tuesday's debate was bound to highlight Texas Rep. Ron Paul's lonely antiwar beliefs in a party that's had a hawkish bent for decades. In that respect, he did not disappoint.

Out of the gate, Paul sparred with Gingrich over the Patriot Act. Gingrich called on the legislation to be strengthened "because the dangers that are posed are so great."

Paul, who has long opposed the legislation on the grounds that it grants the government powers to investigate American citizens without their knowledge, called the Patriot Act "unpatriotic" because it "undermines our liberty."

Later, Paul broke with his rivals when they said they would side with Israel if it launched an attack on Iran. And he called humanitarian aid to fight disease in Africa "worthless." (His argument: Aid money gets scooped up by foreign despots instead of the people who really need it.)

Paul may be in line with the Republican base on matters of spending and debt, but when it comes to foreign policy, he is on an island.

Republicans agree: We love Israel: Tuesday's debate made clear that in the wake of George W. Bush's eight years in office, the Republican Party lacks any sort of cohesive foreign policy vision.

There remains one point of consensus, however: That the United States should do whatever it takes to protect and defend Israel.

With the exception of Paul, the Republican candidates have all taken stridently pro-Israel positions throughout the campaign.

The ante was upped Tuesday by Romney, who made this promise: "If I'm president of the United States, my first trip -- my first foreign trip will be to Israel to show the world we care about that country and that region."

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said he would do the same.

Cain said he would side with Israel if it launched an attack on Iran to disable its nuclear capabilities.

Huntsman went out of his way to praise Israel later, saying this: "Our interest in the Middle East is Israel. And our interest is to ensure that ... Iran does not go nuclear."

And Bachmann said Obama has undertaken "a doctrine of appeasement" toward Iran.

Paul was the lone voice of dissent, telling the debate crowd that "Israel should take care of themselves."

Herman Cain: The missing man: Was Herman Cain trying to stay under the radar?

After a forceful start where he touted his "targeted identification" airport security screening plan, the businessman, former Godfather's Pizza CEO and radio talk show host seemed to lay low for the rest of the debate.

Domestic policy, aka "9-9-9," is Cain's strong suit, but the debate offered the candidate a chance to improve his foreign policy and national security chops. Cain didn't seem willing to take up the challenge.

Cain didn't appear to do himself any favors with brief generic answers like "number one, secure the border for real" and "I would first make sure that they had a credible plan for success, clarity of mission and clarity of success."

And rule No. 1 for any candidate at a debate: Get the name of the moderator correct. Cain initially called CNN's Wolf Blitzer "Blitz."

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