WASHINGTON - Republican presidential hopefuls supported the anti-terror Patriot Act in campaign debate Tuesday night, saying it should be extended or perhaps strengthened to help identify and capture those who would attack the United States.
Only Rep. Ron Paul of Texas among eight presidential hopefuls dissented, warning that the law is "unpatriotic because it undermines our liberties."
In a debate on national security issues, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said President Barack Obama has "essentially handed over our investigation of terrorists to the" American Civil Liberties Union. "Our CIA has no ability to investigate," she said.
Bachmann did not cite any examples to buttress either of her claims.
The debate unfolded six weeks to the day before the Iowa caucuses inaugurate the competition for delegates to the Republican National Convention. The venerable DAR Constitution Hall was the site - a few blocks from the White House and as close as most if not all of the GOP hopefuls are likely to get.
The Patriot Act is one of the nation's principal tools in ferreting out terrorist threats but has often provoked dissents from both liberals and conservatives who argue that in the name of national security it erodes constitutional protections.
Paul made that point, and said other investigative techniques captured Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.
Gingrich jumped at that. "That's the whole point. Timothy McVeigh killed a lot of Americans," the former House speaker said.
"I don't want a law that says after we lose an entire American city we're going to find you."
Neither Gingrich nor any other Republican mentioned that Obama like President George W. Bush before him, signed legislation extending the Patriot Act. He did so while traveling in Europe last May, putting him name on a four-year extension of the law that gives the government sweeping powers to search records and conduct wiretaps in pursuit of terrorists.
There was more disagreement when it came to the war in Afghanistan.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said it was time for the United States to withdraw nearly all its troops.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said top generals disagreed with that and asked Huntsman if he was talking about a withdrawal beginning immediately.
"Did you hear what I said?" Huntsman asked across the debate stage, noting that under the Constitution the president is commander in chief. A few moments later, referring to Vietnam, he said a president had listened to the generals in 1967, and the outcome was not in the interests of the United States.
Also on the debate stage were businessman Herman Cain and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
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Special Section: Campaign 2012