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Republican Debate: GOP Presidential Candidates Face Off In South Carolina (LIVE UPDATES)

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In South Carolina on Saturday night, eight candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination are facing off in a primary debate.

The event comes less than one week after the same group of contenders went head-to-head in Michigan. The list of GOP hopefuls taking part in the forum includes: U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Below, a live blog of the latest developments to unfold in the Palmetto State.

Michele Bachmann's campaign staff is fuming after CBS political director John Dickerson accidentally included them on an email indicating that Bachmann wouldn't be getting much air time during Saturday night's GOP presidential debate because of her low poll numbers.

Hours ahead of the debate, Dickerson told staff via email to keep things "loose" when it came to scheduling Bachmann as a guest on a web show related to the debate, in the event that other GOP presidential candidates with higher poll numbers were available. He noted she also wouldn't get much attention during the debate.

"Okay let's keep it loose though since she's not going to get many questions and she's nearly off the charts in the hopes that we can get someone else," Dickerson replied to staff asking about the web show.

Dickerson failed to notice, however, that Bachmann's campaign spokeswoman Alice Stewart was included on the email. The campaign immediately responded by posting the email on Facebook and accusing CBS of being part of liberal media trying to suppress Bachmann's conservative message.

"Team--This is Keith Nahigian, Michele's campaign manager. While Michele has been onstage at tonight's debate demonstrating strong leadership on foreign policy and national security, we received concrete evidence confirming what every conservative already knows -- the liberal mainstream media elites are manipulating the Republican debates by purposely suppressing our conservative message and limiting Michele's questions," reads Team Bachmann's Facebook page.

"View the attached email by CBS News' political director from earlier today -- we need to show the liberal media elite that we won't stand for this outrageous manipulation. Help us fight this affront by sharing this with your friends," it reads.

CBS later defended its decision not to spotlight Bachmann given her abysmal poll numbers.

Ben Smith of Politico tweeted:
@ benpolitico : CBS spox on Bachmann complaint: "It was a candid exchange about the reality of the circumstances--Bachmann remains at 4% in the polls."

Smith also tweeted:
@ benpolitico : .@jdickerson emails: "Bachmann is at 4% in the polls & has been for a while. Other candidates aren't.I sent an email based on that."

ABC political digital reporter Elicia Dover tweeted that debate moderator Scott Pelley told her that CBS "spent an enormous amount of time...counting questions-making sure everyone had a fair shot."
@ EliciaDover : Scott Pelley told me they "spent an enormous amount of time, several weeks, counting questions-making sure everyone had a fair shot."

-- Jennifer Bendery

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The National Iranian American Council blasted GOP presidential candidates who supported the idea of military action against Iran during Saturday night's debate. "It is shameful that military action was so flippantly endorsed when it is clear that it would inflict such damage to U.S. national interest and to Iran's democracy movement," NIAC president Trita Parsi said in a statement released toward the end of the debate. "War with Iran would be a disaster and would make the Iraq war look like the cake walk it was promised to be," said Parsi. "The only way to resolve the stand-off with Iran is through sustained diplomacy. But that takes far more political courage than the decision to send young American servicemen and women off to war." Several candidates called for stronger sanctions against Iran to ensure the country doesn't become a nuclear state. Romney said military action should be taken "if all else fails," while Rick Santorum was the only one who categorically called for the use of military force.

Parsi also criticized the candidates for not referencing the Iranian government's human rights record "even once during the debate."

--Jennifer Bendery

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Jon Huntsman said Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan -- the one that fundamentally overhauls Medicare and guts social safety net programs -- is the best way to take on the nation's skyrocketing debt. "My speech is a very short one on debt and spending. It's three words: The Ryan plan," Huntsman said. "I think the Ryan plan sets out a template that puts everything on the table. Medicaid, like Gov. Romney, I'd send back to the states. Education I'd want to move closer to the states, the school boards, the families. You're a whole lot better off."

Ryan's proposal, which cleared the House on a partisan vote but has stalled in the Senate, would turn Medicare into a voucher-like system that subsidizes purchases of private insurance plans. People 55 and over would remain in the current system, but younger workers would receive subsidies that would steadily lose value over time. The proposal also relies on stiff cuts to domestic agency accounts, food stamps and Medicaid as part of making trillion in spending cuts.

Huntsman wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed in May saying anyone who disagrees with Ryan's proposal "has a moral obligation to propose an alternative."

--Jennifer Bendery

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Mitt Romney said the best way for the next president to deal with Pakistan is not to send in troops, but to continue using drones to target specific enemies and to coax our "friends" in the country into helping us take out the Taliban.

"We have to work with our friends in that country to get them to do some of the things we can't do ourselves," he said "Announcing at a stage like this that as president, we would throw our troops into Pakistan could be highly incendiary. Right now, they're comfortable with our using drones to go after the people that are representing the greatest threat."

Pressed on whether Pakistan is really "comfortable" with U.S. drones, Romney stood by his statement.

"We have an agreement with the people we need to have an agreement with to be able to use drones to strike at the people that represent a threat," he said.

Which raises the question of who Romney thinks the U.S. has an agreement with.

@ marcambinder : Romney is wrong. We don't have agreement to use drones to attack the Haqqani network....

--Laura Bassett

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Newt Gingrich said foreign policy could be improved by putting more requirements on the unemployed to receive government assistance, saying it could help reduce the deficit and increase competitiveness.

"We should have a training component for all unemployment compensation, so nobody gets money for doing nothing," he said. "That saves money, but it simultaneously adds human capitol."

--Elise Foley

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Herman Cain said President Barack Obama's reaction to the Arab Spring, the democratic uprisings in several Arab countries earlier this year, has allowed the movement to go in the wrong direction -- a surprising statement against democratic movements.

"You have to look at Libya, Egypt, Yemen and all of the revolutions that are going on and how the administration has mishandled them," he said. "As a result, this has gotten totally out of hand."

He said the revolution in Egypt, where citizens ousted long-time President Hosni Mubarak, could strain relations between the United States and Egypt, and he warned against the increased power of opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood, which formed a political party earlier this year.

"Our relationship with Egypt may not survive," he said. "It turned out that the opposition was more of the Muslim Brotherhood, which could end up with a majority of control of this new government."

Cain also criticized the president for his support for protests in Yemen, where the Yemeni goverment has responded with violence to peaceful protests. The White House issued a statement in April calling for Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to investigate violence against protesters.

"This president has already said that the president of Yemen should go," Cain said. "He is our friend. He has been helping us fight Al Qaeda. This president has been on the wrong side in nearly every situation in the Arab world."

--Elise Foley

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Rick Perry called for a radical new approach to American foreign aid spending in the GOP debate Saturday night, proposing that all aid be reduced "to zero," and then be re-implemented only once the country made a good case for their aid. Asked later in the night if he included Israel in that plan, Perry said he did.

"Obviously Israel is a special ally, and my guess is we would be funding them at a high level," Perry said, "but everyone should come in at zero."

It wasn't quite calling for the end of foreign aid to Israel -- Perry was quite clear he supported it -- but the tricky question demonstrated the difficulty of the proposition he made earlier in the night.

Perry had been speaking about cutting aid across the board to zero during a conversation about Pakistan at the beginning of the debate.

"Pakistan is clearly sending us messages that they don't deserve our foreign aid because they're not being honest with us," he said. It was unclear what exact mechanism would be put in place to permit foreign nations to make their pitch for the necessity of American foreign aid.

The U.S. gives about billion of foreign military and political aid per year, including about billion to Israel alone.

Even before the debate was over, Perry's official Twitter account began doing limited damage control, tweeting @PerryTruthTeam: Perry is a friend to Israel, understands challenges faced by the country along with a link to Perry's position statement on Israel.

In an earlier debate, both Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain had pushed back against a suggestion by Ron Paul that foreign aid -- including that to Israel -- out to be re-evaluated in light of America's spending priorities.

--Josh Hersh

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While South Carolinians were under the assumption that they would be able to watch the entire 90 minutes of tonight's debate, those commenting on the Lexington Patch live blog are saying several CBS affiliates in South Carolina have switched to "NCIS." This includes stations in Columbia and Greenville. The Greenville market also includes Spartanburg, the home of Wofford College, site of tonight's debate.

-- John Celock

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@ Jon2012girls : Good thing Dad has scrabble on his IPad.

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Herman Cain said on Friday that if he loses the presidential bid, he would happily settle for the role of Secretary of Defense. But upon being asked how he will know when to overrule his generals as president, Cain dodged the question and said his strategy will be to surround himself "with the right people" and "ask them for alternatives."

"I feel that I'll be able to make that assessment when we put together the cabinet and all the people from the military, et cetera," he said. "Because I'll have a multiple group of people offering different recommendations, this gives me the best opportunity to select the one that makes the most amount of sense."

--Laura Bassett

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It took Cain less than a minute to come out against "torture," but in favor of torture.

"I do not agree with torture, period," Cain said, in response to a reader question. But asked about waterboarding in particular, Cain elaborated, "I agree that it was an enhanced interrogation technique. I would return to that policy. I don't see it as torture, I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique."

Bachmann explicitly supported Cain's position, saying that if she were president, "I would be willing to use waterboarding."

--Josh Hersh

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Newt Gingrich was handed an opportunity by the moderators to knock Mitt Romney on his leadership, when the National Journal's Major Garrett asked the former whether he thinks his fellow candidate can think outside the box on national security.

Gingrich declined, despite saying as much during a radio appearance on Friday, fueling speculation that he is hoping for a high level position in Romney's administration rather than the GOP nomination.

Gingrich: No, no.

Garrett: Then why would you bring it up yesterday when you were on a national radio show?

Gingrich: I brought it up because I was on a national radio show. I think he brings up things when he is on national radio shows. We're here tonight talking to the American people about how every single one of us is better than Barack Obama.

Gingrich continued by calling Romney a "great business manager and an enormous improvement over Barack Obama."

--Elise Foley

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Underscoring just how fractured the GOP presidential field is with respect to America's Afghanistan policy, both the Democratic National Committee and the Jon Huntsman campaign attacked Mitt Romney in an identical fashion during Saturday night's debate.

"Romney All Over The Map On Afghanistan," read the Huntsman campaign release.

"Romney Has Been All Over The Map On Afghanistan," read the DNC's.

--Sam Stein

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Rick Perry's answer that he brings national security experience as commander-in-chief of the Texas National Guard is being discussed by those commenting on Lexington Patch's live blog.

This includes a comment on the role of governors relative to the National Guard. Others brought up that both Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are former governors (and state commenders-in-chief), along with Rick Santorum's prior service on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

-- John Celock

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Rick Perry joked about his embarrassing Wednesday night debate moment, when he tried to list the three government agencies he wants to eliminate and was unable to do so:

Palley: You advocate the elimination of the Department of Energy. If you eliminate the Department of Energy --

Perry: Glad you remembered it.

Palley: I've had some time to think about it, sir.

Perry: Me too.

--Elise Foley

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Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said President Barack Obama is making "a very fatal decision" with his plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by next September.

It "absolutely" made a difference in Afghanistan when Obama went with a 30,000-troop surge, Bachmann said. But he "dithered" for two months by not sending in the full 40,000 troops requested by military leaders. Worse still, she said, is that Obama wants to pull out U.S. troops by next year.

"If that is the case, how do we expect any of our allies to continue to work with us? How can we even begin to seek the peace with the Haqqani Network in the eastern region?" she asked.

Bachmann's comments come on the same day a new poll shows that three in four Americans support the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Earlier in the week, she accused Obama of pulling troops from both countries for political gain versus military considerations.

--Jen Bendery

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As the first half-hour of the debate wraps up, those commenting on the Lexington Patch live blog have found that Gingrich has taken the early lead, in terms of talking about substance, with the possibility of gaining more momentum in a state where he is on an upswing.

The group found Romney and Huntsman to be good debaters, while viewing Perry as dodging questions.

-- John Celock

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After Rick Perry called for the United States to severely draw down foreign aid to every country -- including allies -- to "start off at zero," Michele Bachmann actually offered a dose of sensible realism. Pointing out that "we have a problem in Pakistan" because it has a nuclear weapon, Bachmann argued that simply ending relations with countries whose policies we don't like is not always the wisest option.

Gingrich later sided with Perry, and Santorum sided with Bachmann.

--Josh Hersh

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Jon Huntsman differed from the other candidates on Afghanistan, saying he believes troop levels should be decreased significantly. Instead of keeping 100,000-plus troops in the country, he said the government should maintain intelligence officers and continue to train local forces.

"I take a different approach on Afghanistan," he said. "I think it's time to come home. I say this nation has achieved its key objectives in Afghanistan: We had free elections in 2004, we uprooted the Taliban, we have dismantled Al Qaeda, and we killed Osama bin Laden."

He said the more important foreign policy objective would be to build up the United States so it remains competitive.

"I say this nation's future is not Afghanistan," he said. "This nation's future is not Iraq. This nation's future is how prepared we are to meet the 21st century's competitive challenges. That's economics, that's education. I don't want to be nation-building in Afghanistan when this nation so needs to be built."

--Elise Foley

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As expected, Iran -- and a new IAEA report that cites new signs of a nuclear weapons program there -- was the first topic of discussion in tonight's debate, and it offered the candidates a quick punching bag against Obama.

"There are a number of ways to be smart about Iran and relatively few ways to be dumb," Newt Gingrich said, "and the administration has managed to skip over all the ways to be smart."

Both Cain and Romney said they would apply much stronger sanctions -- and greater support for the opposition -- than Obama has; but while Cain ruled out the use of military force, Romney said that "if all else fails, then of course you take military action."

Only Rick Santorum categorically called for the use of military force to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state. "We should be working with Israel right now to do what they did in Syria and to do what they did in Iraq, to take out that nuclear ability before the next explosion in Iran is a nuclear one, and the world changes." Knowing that Iran will provide the candidates one of their best chances to hit at Obama, who is broadly successful and popular on foreign policy, both Perry and Santorum, who were not directly asked about the topic, edged their way into the issue. "This is going to be the most important issue facing our nation," Santorum said, insisting on a chance to speak.

Perry raised the specter of shutting down Iran's central bank, a proposal that has seen some growing signs of support in Congress lately, but brings with it major risks of causing deep harm to the world's economy.

--Josh Hersh

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@ rickklein : Huntsman on Afghanistan: "I stay it's time to go home." So he's saying Obama, um, succeeded? #CBSNJDebate

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@ TPM : Cain says first thing he'd do in Iran is to "assist the opposition" http://t.co/TRJBl7XH

@ michaelpfalcone : Romney: “If we re-elect Barack Obama Iran will have a nuclear weapon” #cbsnjdebate

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Newt Gingrich, rising in the polls, gets a coveted spot on the podium: in the middle, next to Mitt Romney. Rick Perry, stumbling in those same polls, is off to the side.

-- Sam Stein

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Tonight's debate, already scheduled to run a half-hour shorter than most of the previous two-hour debates, may be even shorter at home, thanks to a quirk of network television programming. According to CBS, the first hour of the debate will air on national TV. After that, only viewers on the West Coast will be able to see the last half-hour. For the rest of you, there's the CBS livestream, which you can watch at CBS.com so you won't miss a single insight on US-Pakistani relations.

--Josh Hersh

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Up to this point in the Republican campaign for president, foreign policy has been little more than a sideshow. (Some might argue freakshow.)

By and large, the raw numbers account for this. Asked what they consider to be the most important issue facing the nation, the bulk of polled Americans say the economy and unemployment, while international matters -- terrorism, the war in Iraq, and other ancillary concerns -- rarely score more than 5 or 6 points.

Not insignificantly, foreign policy and international affairs are the only areas where President Obama consistently polls well among the general public. (His recent decision to withdraw all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year -- following through, it should be noted, on a pact signed by his predecessor -- received the approval of a whopping 77 percent of the public, according to a new CBS News poll.) There's little to be gained, and a whole lot to lose, by taking on the president over his foreign policy choices.

Then again, foreign policy matters to a potential commander-in-chief -- and if you're staying in on a Saturday night to watch the GOP candidates square off on it, then it matters to you. Indeed, it's quite possible that concerns about how a potential president will handle that "3 a.m. phone call" could sink a candidacy where misguided policies -- or sexual abuse allegations -- couldn't.

None of the GOP 2012 candidates has any substantive experience in foreign policy, with the exception of Jon Huntsman, who has spent several years as ambassador to China, speaks workable Mandarin, and has proposed that the United States rein back its military adventurism, and refocus on problems at home. But his low ratings in the polls, aside from offering further evidence of the irrelevance of foreign policy to this campaign, all but negates the value of his sophistication.

The only other candidate to seriously propose a foreign policy agenda is Mitt Romney, who laid out his vision in a widely covered speech early last month. He, like his fellow candidates, has opposed Obama's policies in Iraq and the coming drawdown in Afghanistan. But he has distinguished himself for his effort to create an image of himself as a potential commander-in-chief -- a militant and strong leader, with an expansive vision of America's role in the world, and an unwillingness to "apologize for America."

As for the rest, the challenge they face is steep, as is the learning curve. Suggesting that Iraq should "pay us back," as Michele Bachmann has done, will not quite cut it. Nor will mocking a major Central Asian ally, as Herman Cain has done; or butchering a question about a nuclear crisis in Pakistan, as Rick Perry has done; not to mention naming the wrong leader of Pakistan, as Rick Santorum has done.

Even Romney has delivered some head-scratchers, including a series of incompatible suggestions about withdrawal from Afghanistan, and last debate's casual dismissal of Italy's catastrophically failing economy as someone else's problem.

As for the topics tonight?

Expect to see some the candidates scramble to accuse Obama of failing in Iraq and of abandoning the alliance with Israel. Those are easy, and familiar, cards to play.

Expect to hear some serious proposals about what to do in Afghanistan. If leaving is not an option, why is staying? For how long?

Expect to hear some rationalizing for why so many of them opposed the military operation in Libya, and what they would have done differently about the revolutions in the Arab Spring.

Expect to hear them discuss the rising threat of China, both militarily and economically -- and hopefully propose workable solutions that go beyond mere rhetorical confrontation.

Expect to hear a lot about the nuclear threat in Iran, which is positioning itself to be a major wedge issue for the Republicans -- a chance to both criticize Obama's policies and demonstrate that they are more aggressive and less conciliatory than the president.

And hope to see some more serious policy considerations and analyses about these issues. Because tonight is one of the last real chances for the field to demonstrate they think about foreign policy in more than soundbites and swipes at Obama.

-- Josh Hersh

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You can watch the debate live here starting at 8 p.m. ET.

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Welcome to our liveblog of tonight's GOP debate in South Carolina. We'll have highlights here from HuffPost reporters Laura Bassett, Jen Bendery, Laura Bassett, Elise Foley, Josh Hersh, and Jon Ward.

Our colleagues at Patch.com are also liveblogging the debate from the ground at Wofford College in Spartanburg. You can follow it here.

Here's an early look at the set, courtesy of Patch's Chris Winston:

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