WASHINGTON -- In a foreign policy debate dominated by the hawkish perspectives of the GOP frontrunners, two presidential candidates cemented their roles as party gadflies, particularly on the use of military force and the importance of protecting civil liberties.
Both former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas) have long distinguished themselves for their willingness to break from Republican party orthodoxy during the 2012 campaign; so far, both have been rewarded with consistently low numbers in the polls.
But while the Huntsman and Paul have occasionally found common ground with their fellow conservatives on certain economic and social issues -- Huntsman, for one, reiterated his support for the Tea Party backed Paul Ryan economic plan on Saturday -- a discussion of foreign policy provided the clearest evidence yet of the growing rift between the two outliers and the rest of the field.
On the most controversial topic of the night, the use of waterboarding and other forms of "enhanced interrogation," only Paul and Huntsman came out definitively against their use and stated categorically that waterboarding is torture.
"We diminish our standing in the world and the values that we project which include liberty, democracy, human rights, and open markets when we torture," Huntsman said.
"We should not torture. Waterboarding is torture. We dilute ourselves down like a whole lot of other countries. And we lose that ability to project values that a lot of people in corners of this world are still relying on the United States to stand up for them."
At one point, after Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) had offered a firm defense of waterboarding -- "I think it was very effective," she said -- National Journal's Major Garrett, one of the debate moderators, looked at Paul and said, "My Spidey sense tells me we have a debate about to get launched here."
"Yes, torture is illegal," Paul responded. "Waterboarding is torture. And it's illegal under international law and under our law. It's also immoral."
After adding that torture often produced unreliable information, Paul continued, "I think it's uncivilized and has no practical advantages and is really un-American to accept on principle that we will torture people that we capture."
On the subject of Iran, which a recent U.N. report indicated may be increasingly intent on pursuing a nuclear weapon, Paul in particular took a strong stance against the hawkish tone of the other candidates.
After both Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum said they would back military strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure, Paul likened the talk to the war-mongering that preceded the invasion of Iraq.
"It isn't worthwhile," Paul said of the prospect of military action against Iran. "The only way you would do that is you would have to go through Congress. ... I'm afraid what's going on right now is similar to the war propaganda that went on against Iraq. And, you know, they didn't have weapons of mass destruction. And it was orchestrated and it was, to me, a tragedy of what's happened these last 10 years, the death and destruction, $4 trillion in debt. So no, it's not worthwhile going to war."
Herman Cain had also said that he would not support a military operation.
In the relatively limited time the Huntsman and Paul had to speak, they both seemed intent on demonstrating their unique credibility on world affairs -- Paul as a sort of neo-isolationist who believes the U.S. should avoid meddling abroad as much as possible and Huntsman, a former Ambassador to China, as the sole candidate with substantial foreign policy experience.
Huntsman called for the troops to come home from Afghanistan, and later delivered a lengthy exposition on the difficult relationship the United States has with Pakistan. He went out of his way during those remarks to mention by name two top Pakistani officials, and he was one of the only candidates to cite a foreign leader by name all night.
Huntsman also took issue with the strong words of Romney and others about the rising power of China, and the suggestion that it may be manipulating currency markets.
"I've tried to figure this out for 30 years of my career. First of all, I don't think, Mitt, you can take China to the W.T.O. on currency-related issues. Second, I don't know that this country needs a trade war with China. Who does it hurt? Our small businesses in South Carolina, our exporters, our agriculture producers."
He added, "The reality's a little different, as it usually is, when you're on the ground."