Perry stumbles in debate on Taliban nukes question

ORLANDO, Florida Fri Sep 23, 2011 12:44am EDT

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ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Front-runner Rick Perry stumbled during the Republican presidential candidates' debate on Thursday when asked what he would do if he got a 3 a.m. call alerting him that the Taliban had gotten nuclear weapons from Pakistan.

"Well obviously, before you ever get to that point you have to build a relationship in that region. That's one of the things that this administration has not done," the Texas governor replied at the debate in Orlando, Florida.

Perry made a reference to recent U.S. military accusations that Pakistan's intelligence service was backing Afghanistan's Haqqani insurgent group in carrying out attacks against U.S. targets, including the American Embassy in Afghanistan.

Then he talked about the importance of improving relations with India, Pakistan's neighbor and nuclear rival.

"So to have a relationship with India, to make sure that India knows that they are an ally of the United States. For instance when we had the opportunity to sell India the upgraded F-16s, we chose not to do that ... The point is, our allies need to understand clearly that we are their friends, we will be standing by there with them," Perry replied.

"Today, we don't have those allies in that region that can assist us if that situation that you talked about were to become a reality."

The answer raised doubts about Perry's foreign policy expertise in the region where the United States has been at war for a decade.

Candidate Rick Santorum, who has gained little traction in the race for the Republican nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012, said Perry had failed to answer the question about the Taliban obtaining nuclear weapons.

"Working with allies at that point is the last thing we want to do. We want to work in that country to make sure the problem is defused," Santorum said.

(Reporting by Jane Sutton; editing by Alistair Bell and Vicki Allen)

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