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Viewers of the first Republican presidential debate in Florida saw a newly aggressive Mitt Romney who engaged in a lengthy exchange with Newt Gingrich. The media will focus on the bickering over Gingrich’s alleged lobbying and tenure as speaker of the House, but the tough talk on overthrowing the communist regime of Cuba is what electrified the audience.
About 10% of the Florida primary voters are Cuban-Americans, prompting the moderator to ask Mitt Romney about his stance on the Castro regime and how he’d handle a potential refugee crisis if it were to fall. Romney was applauded, even though the audience was asked to be quiet, when he said he’d first “thank heavens that Castro has gone to his maker.” He sharply criticized President Obama’s softening of America’s policy towards Cuba and praised a democratic activist who died in Cuba while on a hunger strike.
Newt Gingrich was likewise applauded by following that up with saying, “I don’t think Fidel [Castro] is going to meet his maker. He’s going to another place.” Gingrich then won the biggest reaction of the night when he said that he would not tolerate four more years of the Castro dictatorship and would support a “Cuban Spring” by supporting every democratic activist achieve regime change.
Rick Santorum spoke in similar terms and broadened the discussion. He warned of the anti-American alliance that has formed between Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Iran and the “jihadists.” He said that these enemies are elated to have a base only 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
Ron Paul was the lone exception to a policy of regime change towards Cuba. He said that it is not 1962 anymore and that the U.S. should diplomatically and economically engage the Cuban regime, comparing it to how relations have improved with Vietnam.
Iran’s threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz also were discussed. Mitt Romney said that such an action would be an act of war and that the U.S. military should respond to reopen the route. He also said that the U.S. Navy is the smallest it has ever been since 1917 and that he would increase annual production of naval ships from 8 per year to 15.
Gingrich promised to decisively respond to Iran and mocked the Obama administration for canceling its planned missile defense exercises with Israel, saying it is “dangerous” for Iran to believe that the U.S. is weak. Ron Paul said that the U.S. has committed an act of war against Iran by “blockading” the country and that an attack on the Strait of Hormuz would be “retaliation.” He dismissed the possibility that Iran would actually close the Strait because of its reliance on oil exports.
Rick Santorum gave the toughest answer on Iran, adding that the U.S. should use military force if necessary to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. He equated the Iranian theocracy with Al-Qaeda and gave a long list of Iranian “acts of war,” including taking American citizens hostage, attacking ships and embassies, plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. on American soil and helping to kill American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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