Attacks Sharpen Among Party's Principal Rivals
Monday, October 22, 2007
ORLANDO, Oct. 21 -- The leading Republican presidential candidates staged their most contentious and personal debate of the long campaign season here Sunday night, clashing sharply over abortion, immigration, tort reform and their readiness to challenge Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in a general election.
The debate's opening minutes included a series of personal exchanges that illustrated the growing stakes in the nominating battle and set the tone for the 90-minute encounter. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney were quickly put on the defensive, fending off criticism leveled by former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.), who questioned their conservative credentials.
Thompson raked Giuliani for having supported federal funding of abortion, voting for the reelection of Democrat Mario Cuomo for governor in 1994, backing gun control and making New York a sanctuary city for immigrants.
"He sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues," Thompson said.
Giuliani then jumped on Thompson, attacking his record in the Senate of opposing GOP-sponsored legislation to limit costly lawsuits. "Fred was the single biggest obstacle to tort reform in the United States Senate," he said. "He stood with Democrats over and over again."
One of the most personal attacks came when Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) joined the fray early in the debate, taking umbrage at Romney's recent statement that he speaks for the "Republican wing" of the Republican Party. "Governor Romney, you've been spending the last year trying to fool people about your record," McCain said. "I don't want you to start fooling them about mine. I stand on my record. I stand on my record of a conservative."
Thompson drew one of the toughest questions of the night in the debate's closing minutes, when he was asked by Fox News's Wendell Goler about his sometimes languid pace on the campaign trail. Asked about criticism that he was lazy, Thompson rolled through a lengthy r¿sum¿ that includes becoming an assistant U.S. attorney at 28, serving as counsel on the Watergate committee at 30, winning election to the Senate twice and helping shepherd Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. through the confirmation process in 2005.
"If a man can do all that and be lazy, I recommend it to everybody," he said to laughter and applause.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who has been crowding his way into the top tier of the race, stood by throughout the early exchanges, then chided the others for attacking one another, saying Americans are "looking for a presidential candidate who's not so interested in a demolition derby against the other people in his own party."
Sunday's debate was sponsored by the Republican Party of Florida and was aired on Fox News Channel. Fox anchor Brit Hume served as moderator. The debate came two days after Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) dropped his candidacy and became the second casualty of the GOP contest, and a day after a straw poll among religious and social conservatives showed that the key constituency has not yet coalesced around any of the contenders.
The debate, the third of the year hosted by Fox, featured all of the remaining Republican candidates: Giuliani, Romney, McCain, Thompson, Huckabee, and Reps. Ron Paul (Tex.), Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and Duncan Hunter (Calif.).
The candidates competed for attention with the final game of the American League baseball playoffs and brought the same level of intensity to their encounter that the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians did to their contest. Thompson, under pressure to step up, produced a far more energetic performance than in his first debate. McCain delivered some of the most memorable lines of the night, while Giuliani provided another strong showing. Romney stayed on the script he has followed for many weeks.