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.
Paul refused to give in, saying that terrorists react to the United States' actions in the world. "If we ignore that, we ignore that at our risk," Paul said.
Giuliani confronted head-on the issue that has dogged him since the group's first debate last month: how to stay true to his long-standing support for abortion rights without being rejected by the party's most socially conservative voters.
Flanked by a host of rivals who declared their belief that life begins at conception and must be protected, Giuliani called for a respect for women who do not agree, and who decide they want to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
"There are people, millions and millions of Americans, who are of as good conscience as we are, who make a different choice about abortion," said Giuliani, who this week declined to answer a reporter's question about when life begins. "You have to respect that."
But Giuliani joined almost all of his rivals on the stage in demanding that the United States persevere in Iraq, saying the determination of terrorists requires an equal determination from Americans in the face of grim news from the front lines. Only Paul said troops should never have gone into Iraq in the first place.
"These people do want to follow us here. They have followed us here," Giuliani said of terrorists. "We have to remind ourselves that we are facing an enemy that is planning all over this world . . . to come here and kill us. And the worst thing to do in the face of that is to show them weakness."
McCain, whose support for President Bush's buildup of troops in Baghdad has proven to be a drag on his second run for the White House, pledged, if necessary, to be "the last man standing" in making the case for the war.
"It is long, it is hard, it is tough, it is difficult. Americans are frustrated because of the mishandling of this war," the former Vietnam prisoner of war said. "But America's national interests are at stake. We must succeed."
Romney said that terrorists are waging a "global jihadist effort" and that "what we are doing in Iraq has enormous impact on what's going to happen in this global struggle."
Also participating in the debate were Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California and former Wisconsin governor Tommy G. Thompson.
The candidates were asked by moderator Brit Hume, of Fox News, not to spend time commenting on the death of Falwell, news of which arrived here via news alerts on cellphones and BlackBerrys and jolted the news media and politicians as they prepared for the debate. The 90-minute event was co-sponsored by Fox News and the South Carolina Republican Party.
"It was just terrible," Brownback said of Falwell's death during a tour of the debate hall on of the University of South Carolina campus. Moments later, Giuliani praised Falwell as a man who was "not afraid to speak his mind" and expressed sympathy for Falwell's family. Huckabee called Falwell "a great man and a great influence for America and for Christ."
McCain, who famously called Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance" after losing South Carolina's presidential primary in 2000, issued a statement calling Falwell "a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country."
McCain and Falwell repaired their icy relationship years later, with McCain delivering the 2006 commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University.
"In the 1980s, with the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, there were tens of thousands of volunteers who were well trained," said one veteran GOP strategist who did not want to talk publicly about political ramifications on the day of Falwell's death. "We don't have that anymore."
National polls show Giuliani leading the Republican field. But his margin over McCain has slipped as the former mayor has increasingly become the focus of attention. Surveys suggest that actor and former senator Fred D. Thompson, who has not yet declared his intentions and was not part of last night's debate, is stealing some of Giuliani's thunder.
Also absent last night was former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who said Monday that there is a "great possibility" he will join the GOP field in September, after holding an "ideas" retreat in the late summer. Gingrich is also slated to deliver the commencement address at Falwell's university on Saturday.