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Republican candidates talk ISIS, veterans and the draft at eighth debate

With just days before the second primary contest of the 2016 election, the Republican presidential candidates faced a gauntlet of national security and veterans questions in the eighth national debate on Saturday.

All of the hopefuls took shots at President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton for being too weak on defense and too naive on foreign policy. Throughout the campaign thus far, the Republican field has promised to plus-up defense spending and restore military might they say was diminished over the last eight years.

But the seven candidates invited to the New Hampshire debate still showed distance — and distrust -— in each other's proposals. Here's a look at some of the key points of discussion:

Islamic State group

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won the Iowa caucuses but has come under fire for his promises to "carpet bomb" Islamic State group strongholds in the Middle East, dismissed concerns that his plan amounted to careless attacks on innocent civilians.

"When I say saturation carpet bombing, that is not indiscriminate," he said. "That is targeted at oil facilities. It's targeted at the oil tankers. It's targeted at command and control locations. It's targeted at infrastructure … It's using overwhelming air power."

He also accused Obama of sending troops to Iraq "with their arms tied behind their back" and promised to loosen rules of engagement in the fight.

"If and when we use it when it comes to defeating ISIS, we should use it. We should use overwhelming force, kill the enemy and then get the heck out. Don't engage in nation-building but instead, allow our soldiers to do their jobs instead of risking their lives with politicians making it impossible to accomplish the objective."

Business mogul Donald Trump, who has also promised to step up U.S. attacks on ISIS fighters, said cutting off the group's finances will be key to defeating them.

"Four years ago I said bomb the oil and take the oil," he said. "And if we did that, they wouldn't have the wealth they have right now. Now, I still say the same thing, because we're doing little pinpricks.

"When you take away their money, when you take away their wealth, that'll very much weaken them, and it will happen fairly fast."

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio promised "overwhelming force" to defeat ISIS but also emphasized that local fighters will be needed to effectively take those strongholds and manage those cities after liberation.

"It will take Sunni Arabs to reject them ideologically and defeat them militarily," he said.  "It will also require the cooperation of Jordanians, Egyptians. We should ask more of the Saudis. And that will need to be backed up with more U.S. special operation forces alongside them. And it will have to be backed up with increased air strikes."

North Korea

Saturday's debate began just hours after news spread that North Korea had test fired a long-range rocket, potentially a step towards having military capability to strike the United States.

Cruz called the development "the direct result of the failures of the first Clinton administration," adding that Democrats are still using the same misguided officials who brokered past nuclear deals with the rogue nation to advise on national security issues.

But he would not back a preemptive strike against the country, saying he needs more intelligence on the situation before backing such an idea.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was more forceful.

"(The Obama administration) has come up with these great marketing terms, but what they do is they pull back, and voids are filled, and they're now filled by asymmetric threats of terror, as well as nation-states on the run," he said. "If a preemptive strike is necessary to keep us safe, then we should do it."

Ohio Gov. John Kasich said that the United States has to "make sure that we intercept both their ships and their aircraft, because what they're trying to do is to proliferate this very dangerous (nuclear) material."

Trump said the problem should be China's to solve, since "they have total, absolute control, practically, of North Korea." But he blasted Obama for so far being unwilling to force their hand.

"I think we have a president who, as a president, is totally incompetent, and he doesn't know what he's doing," he said.

Veterans Affairs

In the last Democratic debate, the two remaining candidates accused the Republican field of working to privatize the Department of Veterans Affairs. Republican candidates sidestepped that accusation but vowed to expand health care choices for veterans.

Neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who has advocated dismantling much of the department, said veterans "should have health empowerment accounts that are subsidized so they can go to any medical facility and be taken care of. They can go to a VA if they want to."

Kasich stated that "when a veteran comes home, they should get health care anywhere they want to go." But he also said more work needs to be done to connect veterans with jobs when they leave the service, and promised to make that a priority as president.

Rubio and Bush both connected failings in VA with a lack of accountability in the department. Rubio referenced his past work on new rules to speed the firing of VA officials for incompetence or malfeasance and promised "more people will be fired if I'm president."

Bush called Clinton "a captive of the public service (unions)" and called management problems at the department "completely outrageous."

Fixing the problems means "giving veterans more choices, creating centers of excellence, focusing on the true problems that exist," he said. "We can do this, but it's going to require someone who has proven leadership skills to make it happen."

Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich answers a question during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by ABC News at the St. Anselm College Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich answers a question during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by ABC News at the St. Anselm College Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Republican presidential candidate, Ohio Gov. John Kasich answers a question during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by ABC News at the St. Anselm College Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, in Manchester, N.H.

Photo Credit: David Goldman/AP

Other military issues

On the topic of women in combat roles, three candidates — Rubio, Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — backed having women register for the draft, calling it an issue of fundamental fairness. The other four candidates were not asked for their positions.

On interrogation techniques, Cruz and Trump promised to reinstate waterboarding in certain circumstances. Trump promised to "bring back waterboarding and I'd bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding."

On the detention facilities at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Bush called Obama's plans to close the facility "a complete disaster."

"The idea (of Obama) is that we're going to solve this fight with predator drones, killing people somehow is more acceptable than capturing them, securing the information," he said. "What we need to do is make sure that we are kept safe by having intelligence capabilities, both human and technological intelligence capabilities far superior than what we have today."

On employment issues, Kasich promised to give college credit for skills learned during military service, an issue that Obama has also pushed in recent years.

"In our state — which is what we should do in the country, you know — if (troops) drive a truck from Kabul to Kandahar in Afghanistan, we say you can drive a truck from Columbus to Cleveland and you don't have to go get a license," he said. "We're going to hand you one."

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.

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