Republicans Debate Their Conservative Bona Fides

Supporters Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney greet motorists near the debate site in Columbia, S.C.
Supporters Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney greet motorists near the debate site in Columbia, S.C. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 16, 2007

COLUMBIA, S.C., May 15 -- The leading Republican presidential candidates parried accusations from their rivals that they have strayed too far from their party's conservative philosophies on abortion, taxes and immigration in a debate that featured some of the most direct exchanges of the 2008 battle for the GOP nomination.

The debate included sharp jabs as the candidates pledged tax cuts and all but one reaffirmed their support for the war in Iraq. The contenders also further exposed their party's divisions over social issues, including abortion and stem cell research, on a day when the Rev. Jerry Falwell's death cast a shadow over the campaign.

The entire group appeared more relaxed and at ease than they were in their first meeting in Simi Valley, Calif., two weeks ago. And some of the most memorable moments were the lighter ones, as when former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee joked that the Congress had "spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop," an allusion to reports that the Democratic candidate had paid $400 for a haircut.

But the Republican candidates, who have to date reserved their toughest rhetoric for Democrats, engaged one another directly in ways they had not in the earlier debate or on the stump.

The most aggressive was former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III, who accused Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Huckabee of not being true conservatives.

"Some of the people on this stage were very liberal in characterizing themselves as conservatives, particularly on the issues of abortion and taxes and health care," Gilmore said, prompting retorts from each.

And McCain, responding to criticism from Romney on immigration, launched a thinly veiled retort about Romney's penchant for changing his positions when he was running for senator and governor in Massachusetts.

"I haven't changed my position on even-numbered years or have changed because of the different offices that I may be running for," McCain said.

Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado also referred to his rivals' sometimes changing positions, saying, "I trust those conversions when they happen on the road to Damascus, not on the road to Des Moines."

On Iraq, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the Libertarian candidate for president in 1988, stood alone in railing against the decision to go to war, comparing it to a quagmire he said engulfed U.S. troops in Vietnam a generation ago. "We don't go to war like we did in Vietnam and Korea, because the wars never end," he said.

When Paul later suggested that terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, because of what he described as America's 10-year campaign of bombing in Iraq, an angry Giuliani demanded that he retract the statement.

"I don't think I've ever heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11," Giuliani said.

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