Moderator Major Garrett interacts with the Republican presidential candidates ahead of Saturday night's debate..

Story highlights

Cain and Bachmann support waterboarding suspected terrorists

Candidates face questions over Iran, "Arab Spring"

Perry seeks to regain his footing after an embarrassing mental lapse this week

Spartanburg, South Carolina CNN —  

The Republican candidates for president outlined their foreign policy and national security visions in a debate Saturday tackling issues that have largely taken a backseat in a presidential race shaped by the troubled economy.

Moderators pressed the candidates on a range of topics during the 90-minute debate in South Carolina, including terrorism, Iran’s nuclear capabilities, China, the war in Afghanistan, the so-called “Arab Spring” and foreign aid.

The debate returned several times to the question of whether United States military and intelligence personnel should be allowed to waterboard suspected terrorists, a tactic banned by President Barack Obama shortly after he took office in 2009.

The candidates were split on the matter.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, seeking to regain his footing after an embarrassing mental lapse during a debate earlier this week in Michigan, forcefully defended the practice.

“This is war,” Perry said. “That’s what happens in war.”

Former pizza executive Herman Cain said of waterboarding: “I don’t see that as torture. I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique.”

And Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann called the tactic “very effective” and said Obama “is allowing the ACLU to run the CIA.”

But former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a former diplomat who has positioned himself as the only candidate in the race with serious foreign policy experience, disagreed. So did libertarian-leaning Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

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“We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project which include liberty, democracy, human rights and open markets when we torture,” Huntsman said. “We should not torture. Waterboarding is torture. We dilute ourselves down like a whole lot of other countries and we lose that ability to project values that a lot of people in corners of this world are still relying on the United States to stand up for.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney did not address the matter during the debate held at Wofford College in Spartanburg and sponsored by the South Carolina Republican Party, CBS News and The National Journal.

But Romney aides said after the forum that he does not believe waterboarding is torture.

His adviser Eric Fehrnstrom would not say whether the practice would be used in a Romney administration, saying decisions about “enhanced interrogation” will be up to the president.

“He is not going to spell out what he would employ,” Fehrnstrom told CNN.

Romney embraced several hawkish positions and said military forces should be able to target and kill American citizens fighting alongside enemies overseas, even without a trial.

Pakistan was also in the sights of several candidates.

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Perry harshly accused the Pakistani government and intelligence services of knowingly harboring terrorists and said the United States should stop sending billions of dollars in aid money to the country.

He went further, saying financial aid to every country should be zeroed out and re-evaluated.

That would go for Israel, too, Perry said – though he clarified that Israel remains a staunch American ally and would continue to receive funding “at some substantial level.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich criticized Pakistan in harsh terms and agreed with Perry’s proposal to vastly reduce the amount of federal money allocated for foreign governments.

“You ought to start off at zero and say, explain to me why I should give you a penny,” Gingrich said.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, though, said the administration needs to engage Pakistan because it has nuclear weapons that could fall into the wrong hands under a different regime.

“So we can’t be indecisive about whether Pakistan is our friend,” Santorum said. “They must be our friend, and we must engage them as friends.”