By PHILIP ELLIOTT, ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON -- With new trouble appearing in the Middle East and the Pentagon facing possible budget cuts, the Republican White House contenders are debating for the second time in as many weeks how they would do better than President Barack Obama in protecting and extending America's national security.
Six weeks to the day before the first nominating contests in Iowa, the candidates were looking to use the pre-Thanksgiving holiday debate to build or - for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at the head of the pack - sustain momentum in the battle to pick a 2012 election challenger for Obama.
Businessman Herman Cain, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Reps. Ron Paul of Texas and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania also were meeting in Tuesday night's forum put together by CNN, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.
With unemployment stubbornly high and the economy sluggish to recover from recession, the candidates also were likely to drive the foreign policy discussion back to pocketbook issues at home.
A day earlier, the congressional deficit supercommittee declared an impasse, and that could trigger deep cuts in 2013 spreading across military as well as domestic spending.
Many of the presidential candidates have called the nation's $15 trillion government debt a national security threat, especially since China is the single largest creditor. Obama's own defense secretary, Leon Panetta, has said big Pentagon cuts "would lead to a hollow force incapable of sustaining the missions it is assigned."
The GOP contenders also were ready to criticize Obama on the Middle East. The administration ordered new sanctions this week aimed at forcing Iran to halt a suspected nuclear weapons program, and protests are under way again in Cairo against the military government.
The Iran sanctions target that country's oil industry as well as companies linked to nuclear activity and Iran's banking system.
They, however, were unlikely to satisfy the GOP contenders who are far more hawkish than Obama and have pledged to carry out military strikes against suspected Iranian nuclear facilities to defend U.S. ally Israel.