Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich met in a Lincoln-Douglas style debate in New Hampshire on Monday. In the debate, which focused primarily on foreign policy and America’s place in the world, Gingrich and Huntsman agreed more than they disagreed and were cordial and complimentary toward each other throughout the evening.
Huntsman, who must finish ahead of Romney in New Hampshire to have a reason for continuing his campaign beyond the Jan. 10 “first-in-the-nation” New Hampshire primary, immediately challenged Romney to a similar type of debate after the event concluded. Gingrich, who probably agreed to the debate in order to build Huntsman up in New Hampshire, calculating that Huntsman’s rise would take votes away from Mitt Romney (who currently leads in nearly every New Hampshire poll), helped himself in another way, by presenting himself as calm and reasonable at a time when his opponents are trying to label him as a hothead who may not have the temperament for the presidency.
In speaking about the Middle East and the Arab Spring and his belief that the United States should not have intervened in Libya, Huntsman emphasized his realist foreign policy approach by saying that “you can’t force history” because we “make a mistake in trying to pick winners.”
Huntsman said that he would deal with Syria differently, though, because “with Syria, it is a conduit, a pipeline, that is used by Iran for destabilization.”
While Huntsman has taken this more “realistic” foreign policy stance than Gingrich this cycle (Gingrich refers to himself as a “cheap hawk), both candidates were in agreement on the potential threat a nuclear Iran poses and how to deal with it.
Gingrich said Iran was the “biggest national security threat of the next 10 years” while Huntsman said Iran was the most “transcendent” threat of this decade.
Gingrich asked the audience to look at Iran from the point of view of those in Israel who still remember the Holocaust. Gingrich said that many such Israelis fear that an Iran with multiple nuclear weapons may lead to a second holocaust and the only way to prevent such an occurrence is for there to be a regime change in Iran.
Huntsman, as he has repeatedly said throughout his campaign, reiterated that “all options” must to be on the table, because if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it would create a domino effect in the Middle East and destabilize the region, compelling other nations into a nuclear arms race.
Huntsman said he felt Iran was determined to acquire nuclear weapons because they saw that North Korea was not attacked after having obtained them, while Libya, which gave up its nuclear arms, suffered a different fate. Huntsman said that Iran feels that a nuclear weapon gives the nation more credibility and that is, therefore, another reason why they are pursuing them.
On the Asia-Pacific region, Huntsman said that the new crop of Chinese leaders are susceptible to hubris and implied that the United States has to fix its “core” to take advantage of China’s potential stumbles.
More than anything, Gingrich and Huntsman seemed pleased with the debate’s focus on substantive issues rather than soundbites.
“We’re a country in enormous trouble and we need leaders who are willing to talk to people at a sophisticated level,” Gingrich said. “This is not a Hollywood game. This is not a reality show. This is reality.”
Earlier in the debate, Gingrich said, “One of the great weaknesses [of this election cycle] has been the absence of a serious discussion about the nature of the world…and the nature of America’s role in that world.”
After the debate, Huntsman campaign manager Matt David added: “On display this afternoon in New Hampshire was the type of presidential debate that voters deserve: a substantive, thoughtful dialogue about the critical challenges facing our country, absent the pre-cooked soundbites and theatrics that have come to dominate our political dialogue.”
The Huntsman campaign then sent a challenge to the Romney campaign, challenging the former Massachusetts Gov. to a one-on-one debate in New Hampshire.
“While we understand your campaign has thus far declined to participate in one-on-one debates, we urge you to accept Governor Huntsman’s challenge and join us in offering voters the serious, substantive discussion they deserve,” Huntsman’s campaign wrote to Romney’s campaign.