By Dan Balz and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 4, 2007
SIMI VALLEY, Calif., May 3 -- Republican presidential hopefuls diverged sharply on abortion, stem cells and immigration in their first nationally televised debate Thursday night, with the three leading candidates all forced to defend current or past positions that are anathema to many in the party's conservative base.
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was the only candidate on the stage to equivocate over whether the Supreme Court should overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide, and he restated his support for abortion rights.
Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona were in the minority in expressing support for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was pressed to explain why he has shifted from support to opposition of abortion rights as he prepared to campaign for the White House.
The GOP candidates found much to agree on when the questions turned to foreign policy, with all but one, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, supporting President Bush's troop buildup in Iraq and taking a hard line against Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. But they were critical of the president's management of the war. McCain also made it clear that he would have been far tougher in restraining spending than Bush has been.
The debate was held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, and the candidates competed with one another through the 90-minute encounter to identify themselves with the late president, citing his foreign and domestic policies as models for what the Republican Party should embrace in the coming election.
"Washington changed us," said former Wisconsin governor Tommy G. Thompson. Invoking Reagan, he said the party must produce new and big ideas to win in 2008. "Ronald Reagan had an optimism and a belief that America could be stronger and better tomorrow than it is today, and he instilled that and inculcated that in every American," he said. "That's what we have to do as a party again."
The debate produced no clear winners or losers. The three candidates who top most national polls -- Giuliani, McCain and Romney -- made forceful presentations, but those struggling for attention also generally acquitted themselves well.
Giuliani appeared most out of step on the social issues. To compensate, he cited his mayoral record, saying he had governed as a conservative by cutting taxes, shrinking welfare rolls and reducing crime.
McCain generally sought to emphasize his conservative credentials but also bragged about his ability to reach out to Democrats, though his answers were often drawn straight from his stump speeches. Romney, in his first opportunity to present himself to a national audience, was both animated and energetic as he fielded questions.
The debate was exceedingly freewheeling, with scores of questions from moderators Chris Matthews of MSNBC and John F. Harris of the Politico, supplemented by questions from Americans across the country who had e-mailed their queries over the past few weeks.
The debate featured 10 candidates: McCain, Giuliani, Romney, Thompson, Paul, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado.
Nancy Reagan watched the debate from the front row at her husband's presidential library. The candidates stood in the shadow of the Boeing 707 that served as Air Force One for Reagan and six other presidents. Next to Nancy Reagan sat California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been offering the GOP a distinctly different model of governing from Bush's, emphasizing centrist policies and bipartisan cooperation.
The divisions within the party were most evident when the topic of abortion was raised early in the debate. Matthews asked each of the 10 candidates if it would be a good day for America if the Supreme Court overturned Roe.
Brownback said it would be "a glorious day of human liberty and freedom." Gilmore called Roe "wrongly decided," while Tancredo said it would be "the greatest day in this country's history."
When Giuliani got his chance to respond, he said, "It would be okay," but he went on to note that it would also be okay "if a strict-constructionist judge viewed it as precedent, and I think a judge has to make that decision."
Pressed later to explain his overall position on abortion, he said: "In my case, I hate abortion. I would encourage someone to not take that option." He added: "But ultimately, since it is an issue of conscience, I would respect a woman's right to make a different choice."
With several of the candidates talking about their consistent opposition to abortion, Romney was asked about why he had changed his position. "I took the same course that Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush and Henry Hyde took, and I said I was wrong and changed my mind and said I'm pro-life," he said. "And I'm proud of that, and I won't apologize to anybody for becoming pro-life."
McCain joined Giuliani in parting company with the others on stem cell research. Acknowledging the presence of Nancy Reagan, who has campaigned for federal support for such research, McCain said: "This is a tough issue for those of us in the pro-life community. I would remind you that these stem cells are either going to be discarded or perpetually frozen. We need to do what we can to relieve human suffering. It's a tough issue. I support federal funding."
Immigration also divided the candidates. McCain is the most prominent advocate of a comprehensive solution combining border security with a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but others stressed their belief that simply enforcing the current law without providing a path to citizenship is the right policy.
"That means let's build that border fence," Hunter said. "When people want to come into this country, let's ask them to knock on the front door."
The debate opened with Iraq and foreign policy, and the candidates did not shrink from embracing the president's policy.
"We must win in Iraq," McCain said. "If we withdraw, there will be chaos, there will be genocide and they will follow us home."
"We should never retreat in the face of terrorism," Giuliani said. "Terrible mistake."
Romney, arguing against following polls that show a majority of Americans believe the war cannot be won, said: "I want to get our troops home as soon as I possibly can. But, at the same time, I recognize we don't want to bring them out in such a precipitous way that we cause a circumstance that would require us to come back."
Bush came under criticism for his administration's management of the war, with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee saying he would have fired Donald H. Rumsfeld as defense secretary before the 2006 elections.
"Clearly there was a real error in judgment, and that primarily had to do with listening to a lot of folks who were civilians in suits and silk ties and not listening enough to the generals with mud and blood on their boots and medals on their chest," he said.
The candidates also vowed to pursue Osama bin Laden, with McCain vowing to "follow him to the gates of hell."
Toward the end of the debate, the candidates were asked their views on having Bill Clinton once again living in the White House, this time as the first spouse. Romney spoke for all by exclaiming, "You have got to be kidding."