MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) â€” Republican candidates for US president agreed on Tuesday that Iran must not develop nuclear weapons, even if a tactical nuclear strike is needed to stop Tehran, and accused Democrats of being soft on the issue.
The front-runners for the Republican Party nomination in the November 2008 election also squabbled among themselves over a broad immigration overhaul being debated by the US Congress. But in a debate in New Hampshire where the country’s first primary will be held next year, they were largely in agreement on an issue that President George W. Bush considers vital â€”Â preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
Iran insists its nuclear programme is for civilian use only, but the West is deeply sceptical and is trying to resolve the problem through diplomacy.
“You shouldn’t take any options off the table,” said former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is best known for his leadership after the September 11 attacks and is at the top of national polls in his party’s presidential race.
Speaking two days after Democratic candidates had their own debate in New Hampshire and largely agreed that the United States should open direct diplomatic talks with Iran on the nuclear issue, Giuliani said it sounded to him like “Democrats were back in the 1990s.” California Rep. Duncan Hunter was more direct, saying the United States reserved the right to dissuade Iran. “I would authorise the use of tactical nuclear weapons if there was no other way to pre-empt those particular centrifuges,” he said.
The Republican candidates showed increasing impatience with the direction of the Iraq war, some saying if a US troop buildup ordered by Bush did not show solid progress by September, a plan should be developed to split Iraq into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish states.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is risking his political future by backing the Iraq war at a time when most Americans are tired of it, was the biggest supporter of the troop buildup among the candidates, saying if it does not work, terrorists would follow the United States home. The debate featured 10 Republican candidates. A large presence not there was former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who is widely expected to run but has not yet made a final announcement. Fireworks briefly erupted over the issue of immigration after a Senate proposal backed by Bush exposed deep fissures between the president and conservatives who consider the legislation basically an amnesty plan for 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. McCain firmly backed the legislation as necessary to resolve what he called a “national security problem”. But Giuliani called the immigration plan a “typical Washington mess” that was the result of a compromise between competing interests. “It’s quite possible it will make things worse,” he said.
Mitt Romney deflected a question aimed at responding to McCain’s complaint that the former Massachusetts governor was pandering for votes by calling the legislation a silent amnesty. “He’s my friend,” Romney said of McCain.
But he stuck to his opposition, saying elements of the plan would allow “every illegal alien” to remain in the United States and prevent other immigrants from entering legally.