By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 6, 2007
DES MOINES, Aug. 5 -- The Republican candidates for president used a nationally televised morning debate to mock Democrats on foreign policy, taxes and health care while sparring with each other over abortion and the administration's anti-terrorism efforts.
From a stage in Iowa, the state where the nation's first voting will begin in five months, the GOP candidates said Sunday on ABC's "This Week" that their Democratic rivals support plans for "socialized" medicine and predicted that taxes would be raised if a Democrat returns to the White House.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), in particular, was singled out for saying last week that he would act against terrorists in Pakistan without the support of its president. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney contrasted those comments with Obama's remark during a recent debate that he would be willing to meet with all foreign leaders.
"I mean, in one week he went from saying he's going to sit down, you know, for tea, with our enemies, but then he's going to bomb our allies," Romney said. "He's gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week."
Bill Burton, a spokesman for Obama, quickly responded that "the fact that the same Republican candidates who want to keep 160,000 American troops in the middle of a civil war couldn't agree that we should take out Osama bin Laden if we had him in our sights, proves why Americans want to turn the page on the last seven years of Bush-Cheney foreign policy."
Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani sparked loud applause when he declared that "the knee-jerk liberal Democratic reaction -- raise taxes to get money -- very often is a very big mistake." And Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) declared his disappointment in the Democratic push to end the war in Iraq.
"Not a single Democrat candidate paused in their rush for the exit to say to our Marines, 'Good job. You guys are fighting and achieving, with blood, sweat and tears, what this country needs,' " Hunter said.
As in past encounters, the Republicans largely agreed on the need to continue the Iraq war, saying that leaving the country too quickly would disrupt the fight against terrorism.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), whose front-runner status has slipped away in a wave of fundraising and staff woes, stuck to his guns on the war, saying there will be catastrophic consequences if America abandons Iraq.
"We are winning. We must win. And we will not set a date for surrender, as the Democrats want us to do," McCain said.
Echoing him, Giuliani said: "The reality is that you do not achieve peace through weakness and appeasement. . . . We should seek a victory in Iraq and in Baghdad, and we should define the victory."
The lone voice in continued opposition to the war, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), was again outspoken about America's involvement.
"Just come home. We just marched in. We can just come back," he said. "It's lasting way too long. We didn't declare war in Korea or Vietnam. The wars were never really ended. We lose those wars. We're losing this one. We shouldn't be there. We ought to just come home."
The audience of Iowa Republicans responded with a mix of applause and boos.
Most candidates said their vice president would have a more limited role in government than is often ascribed to Vice President Cheney. And several questioned President Bush's desire to spread democracy around the world by encouraging elections.
The 90-minute debate was the first opportunity in two months for Republican candidates to highlight their differences before a large, national audience. It was moderated by George Stephanopoulos, host of "This Week."
But the candidates largely avoided direct attacks on one another, preferring to stress their own strengths and qualifications.
The sharpest exchange was sparked by the first question of the morning, when Stephanopoulos played for viewers a recording of an automated phone call by Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) attacking Romney's antiabortion credentials. The call said, in part, that Romney's wife had contributed to Planned Parenthood.
Asked whether he stands by the call, Brownback said, "I certainly do. There's one word that describes [the call] and it's 'truthful.' " A clearly agitated Romney said that "virtually nothing in that ad is true" and added, "The single word I'd use would be 'desperate' or perhaps 'negative.' "
Later, Romney attempted to explain his recent conversion from supporting abortion rights to being antiabortion as sincere, and angrily said that "I get tired of people that are holier than thou because they've been pro-life longer than I have."
The debate took place at Drake University. On Saturday, tens of thousands of hard-core activists will gather in Ames, Iowa, for a summertime straw poll that has historically weeded out the weakest candidates in the Republican field.
A new Washington Post poll of voters in Iowa indicates that the Republican race remains muddled. Romney is leading the race here but his support remains soft. Only 19 percent of Republicans likely to vote in the state's caucuses say they are very satisfied with their choices.
Former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) still has not formally announced his candidacy and did not participate in the debate, but the poll shows him with about the same support in Iowa as Giuliani.
This year, McCain, Giuliani and Thompson are ignoring the straw poll, leaving Romney and the lesser-known candidates to woo GOP activists. In the past several weeks, Brownback, Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee have been engaged in an increasingly nasty spat as each tries to secure a victory on Saturday.
The potential make-or-break aspect of the straw poll for some lesser-known candidates lent an intensity to their performances in the debate. Several made bold statements aimed at standing out among the crowd.
Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) defended his recent comments that he would deter terrorist attacks by threatening to bomb Mecca and Medina, two important holy cities in Islam.
"The State Department called that 'reprehensible' and 'absolutely crazy,' " Stephanopoulos said.
"Yes," Tancredo answered. "The State Department -- boy, when they start complaining about things I say, I feel a lot better about the things I say, I'll tell you right now."
Huckabee declared his intention to scrap the federal income tax in favor of a single, 23 percent sales tax, calling such a move "the single great thing" that will do the most to help the nation's economy.
Asked to respond, Romney quipped that "it's good, but it's not that good."
Tommy G. Thompson, former Wisconsin governor and secretary of health and human services in Bush's first term, stressed health care, saying the country has become a "sickness, illness and disease society."
Later, he noted that his mother, wife and daughter have been afflicted with breast cancer and vowed to "end breast cancer by the year 2015 for all the women in America."
A viewer-generated question about the biggest mistake the candidates had made in their lives led McCain to admit regret that he met with a federal regulator in connection with a savings and loan, a decision that led to his involvement in the "Keating Five." Romney cited his statements as a candidate for governor of Massachusetts that he supported abortion rights while he was actually "deeply opposed."
"That was just wrong," Romney said.
But it was Giuliani's response to that question that drew the biggest laugh of the morning.
"To have a description of my mistakes in 30 seconds?" he asked, and shook his head, smiling.
"Defining mistake, Mayor. Just one defining mistake," Stephanopoulos said.
"Your father is a priest," Giuliani said. "I'm going to explain it to your father, not to you, okay?"
"Okay," said Stephanopoulos, whose father is indeed a Greek Orthodox clergyman. "I guess that's a pass."