The Republican presidential hopefuls went to battle Tuesday night over issues ranging from the Patriot Act to the Iranian nuclear threat at the national security and foreign policy debate co-sponsored by AEI.
The debate opened with the eight candidates vying to be commander in chief attempting to steer the conversation away from a second question about Transporation Security Administration pat-downs and back to the post-9/11 law intended to give law enforcement greater tools with which to identify and intercept terrorism suspects.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said it needed to be recognized that a "different body of law" applied to a war on terror, a view shared by others onstage.
But Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) called the controversial act "unpatriotic".
"You can still provide security without sacrificing our bill of rights," Paul said. "You can prevent crimes by becoming a police state ... but the crime then will be against the American people and against our freedoms."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stressed that he would not change the Patriot Act, and would attempt to strengthen it.
What needs to be remembered in the fight against terrorism, he said, is that "all of us will be in danger for the rest of our lives."
"You try to take out an American city, we're going to stop you," Gingrich said.
The debate at DAR Constitution Hall was moderated by CNN's Wolf Blitzer, who selected scholars from AEI and co-host Heritage Foundation to ask the questions.
At one point, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain referred to the CNN anchor as "Blitz," drawing laughs from the packed house. Blitzer called the candidate "Cain" in return.
Most of the exchanges, however, rested on the ideological debate over how much attention -- and corresponding funds -- should be paid to crises abroad while economic troubles at home remain paramount from voter polls to Capitol Hill.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman argued that there are too many problems at home to be focused on "nation-building" abroad, yet acknowleged that "we have achieved some very important goals for the United States of America" in Afghanistan.
Still, Huntsman said, Washington hasn't "done a very good job defining and articulating what the end point is" for the decade-long conflict.
This sparked a heated exchange between Huntsman and Romney, who said, "This is not time for America to cut and run."
"We can't just write off a major part of the world," Romney added. "Instead we want to draw them toward modernity."
"If we pull out of Afghanistan too soon, Iran is going to help fill that power vaccuum in Afghanistan," Cain said.
Fred Kagan, director of AEI's Critical Threats Project, asked candidates to share how they'd deal with Afghanistan's neighbor, Pakistan, when it came to expanding a drone campaign sufficient enough to defeat al-Qaeda.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) called Pakistan "one of the most violent, unstable nations there is" but said she would continue aid to Islamabad.
"We need to demand more. The money that we are sending right now is primarily intelligence money to Pakistan -- it is helping the United States," Bachmann said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Pakistan "has shown us they can't be trusted."
"To write a check to countries that are clearly not representing American interests is nonsensical," he said.
When asked by AEI scholar and former World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz whether development assistance is a key part of foreign policy strategy, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said that efforts "humanitarian in nature" have been "absolutely essential for national security" and have saved money in the long run on military action.
America, he said, is a "shining city on the hill... it is the city that comes to the aid of those in trouble in the world."
"I think the aid is all worthless," Ron Paul countered. "It doesn't do any good for most of the people."
Candidates were pressed on how they would deal with Iran -- and whether sanctions could realistically be effective -- by AEI Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies Danielle Pletka.
"We need a stragety of defeating the current Iranian regime with minimal use of force," Gingrich said, adding that he believes the regime in Tehran could be broken within a year by cutting off their gas supply and sabotaging their refinery.
When asked whether he would support an Israeli campaign to stop Iran's nuclear program, Cain said he wanted to first ensure that Tel Aviv had a plan for success in place.
Cain did not, however, support the idea of a no-fly zone over Syria, where Bashar al-Assad's government has been violentely cracking down on pro-democracy demonstrations. Romney agreed with Cain, but Perry backed the concept of using the strategy employed by NATO over Libya.
"This is not just about Syria," Perry said. "This is about Iran and those two as a partnership in exporting terrorism around the world."
Bridget Johnson is the managing editor of AEI.org.