The forum at Wofford College, sponsored by CBS News and the National Journal, was the first of 10 Republican debates since May to focus exclusively on foreign affairs and national security, and the first to be aired on a national broadcast network as opposed to cable.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said the United States should work with Israel to bomb Iranian nuclear sites, as the Jewish state did in Iraq and Syria - "before the next explosion we hear in Iran is a nuclear one and then the world changes."
Thus far, the candidates have not drawn many distinctions among themselves on global issues. Instead, they have blasted Obama as a naive internationalist who apologizes for America instead of embracing its exceptional nature, and who is a wobbly supporter of Israel.
"President Obama has been more than willing to stand with Occupy Wall Street, but he hasn't been willing to stand with Israel," Rep. Michele Bachmann said. She said "the table is being set for worldwide nuclear war against Israel."
During Saturday's debate, eight GOP candidates did find some disagreements on how to handle Pakistan, and the propriety of waterboarding terrorist suspects and holding them without access to courts of law.
Herman Cain, Bachmann, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry endorsed waterboarding terrorism suspects.
"Waterboarding is torture," Rep. Ron Paul said. "It's illegal under international law and under our law. It's also immoral, and it's also very impractical. There's no evidence that you really get reliable evidence."
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman agreed, saying waterboarding violates American values.
Perry said he would yank U.S. aid from Pakistan, which has been providing havens for Islamic terrorists. "I don't trust them," he said. "It is time for us to say no to aid for foreign countries opposed to America." He said he would start each country's aid allotment "at zero" - including Israel's - and then decide how much each should get based on its cooperation with the United States.
Santorum and Bachmann, however, said the relationship with Pakistan was more nuanced, arguing that it is important to maintain ties with a nuclear power that has elements in its government opposed to extremists. "You can't cowboy on this one," Santorum said. "Pakistan must be a friend of the United States."
Two of the contenders faced more existential challenges, needing to repair damage to their campaigns. Perry face-planted during a debate in Detroit on Wednesday when he struggled to remember the name of one of the cabinet agencies he has promised to demolish, reinforcing a series of poor debate performances. Cain, the former pizza executive, is trying to move past allegations of serial sexual harassment.
Those two dramas have helped Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, solidify his position. Gingrich has also had a resurgence, reflected in a CBS News poll released Friday that had him tied with Romney for second place behind Cain.
South Carolina's primary comes third on the calendar, after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
In every Republican presidential primary since 1980, the state has backed the candidate who eventually won the nomination. South Carolina is more ethnically diverse than New Hampshire, its GOP primaries are less dominated by evangelicals than Iowa's caucuses, and it is bigger than both states.
Two months away from the Jan. 21 vote, a recent Clemson University Palmetto Poll found a fluid electorate. Sixty-eight percent of likely participants in the GOP primary polled said they had not yet decided on a candidate. Among those who had made a choice, Romney led with 22 percent, followed by Cain with 20 percent. Gingrich was in third place with 10 percent, followed by Perry at 9 percent. The remaining contenders were in the single digits.
The poll was released Wednesday, based on interviews with 600 voters who said they were likely to vote in the GOP primary, and results are subject to a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
The 90-minute debate was broadcast live on CBS for an hour, and then streamed live on the Internet. South Carolina CBS stations carried the entire debate, the network said, and it was broadcast in its entirety in West Coast markets.
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Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718, email@example.com, or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Follow his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent.