Analysis: Second GOP Debate Contentious

The Associated Press
Wednesday, May 16, 2007; 4:21 PM

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Republican presidential heavyweights Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney struggled to prove their conservative bona fides and explain their equivocations on important issues to the GOP in their second debate.

Darts from the seven underdog candidates on stage with them _ and provocative questions from the debate moderators _ made the trio's task much harder.

The result was a difference in tone _ and substance _ from the first GOP debate on May 3, a mostly polite affair awash in Ronald Reagan references.

"This was clearly more contentious," Joe Gaylord, a GOP strategist close to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said of the 90-minute debate at the University of South Carolina. "But I thought in that way it was a little more edifying."

Eight months before the first primary votes are cast, the three top-tier candidates sought to protect their leading positions in the wide-open race _ and prove they would bring conservative principles into the Oval Office even as they answered for their own shifts on various issues.

Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, defended himself repeatedly on his support for abortion rights as he emphasized what he called his record of fiscal restraint during his mayoral tenure. Romney conceded he had signed legislation banning assault weapons while governor of Massachusetts, but said he is a supporter of the rights of gun owners under the Second Amendment. And, McCain, a four-term Arizona senator, said he would make sure that President Bush's tax cuts are made permanent, even though he voted against them. He said he voted that way because the tax cuts were not accompanied by spending cuts.

Romney and McCain sniped at each other, the monthlong behind-the-scenes aggression between their campaigns bursting into the open.

"Until this debate, they'd been content to lob missiles at each other from a distance but they were polite in person," said Dan Schnur, a former McCain aide who is now unaligned. This time, he said, "they were more confrontational face to face."

Romney criticized McCain for working across party lines on two bills that conservatives oppose _ immigration and campaign spending. He pointedly referred to the bills as "McCain-Kennedy" and "McCain-Feingold," linking McCain with his Democratic co-sponsors.

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

Romney, in turn, poked at McCain's call for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and said he would double the number of suspected terrorists there. "I don't want them on our soil," he said.

Seeking to stay above the tit-for-tat, Giuliani, the GOP front-runner in national polls, urged his rivals to focus on the Democrats, not turn on each other.

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