By Dan Balz and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.
Prodded by Fox News's Chris Wallace, the Republican candidates unloaded on Clinton, describing her as unfit to be commander in chief, determined to create a government-run health system and a big-spending tax hiker.
Romney derided her qualifications to be president, saying that "she hasn't run a corner store. She hasn't run a state. She hasn't run a city. She has never run anything."
When Wallace turned to Giuliani and compared him to Clinton, Giuliani said simply: "You've got to be kidding. You have got to be kidding." He quoted Clinton as saying: "I have a million ideas; America cannot afford them all," and then, with a sneer, said: "No kidding, Hillary -- America can't afford you."
McCain promised a "respectful" debate with Clinton if they end up as the nominees, but he ridiculed her for a $1 million congressional earmark for a Woodstock museum. Huckabee warned his colleagues against treating the prospect of a Clinton presidency too lightly: "There's nothing funny about Hillary being president."
The Fox panel, which also included political correspondent Carl Cameron, grilled the candidates on the future of Medicare and Social Security, with Thompson standing out as the only one offering bold and unpopular ideas.
Thompson, who has proposed changing the way benefits will grow in the future, said his proposals "will avoid future generational warfare, where we have to fight over a lot higher taxes or big benefit cuts. If we do some responsible things now, we don't have to do that."
The other candidates all pledged to rescue the programs from future bankruptcy, but most placed their hopes in the creation of personal savings accounts -- an idea that President Bush has failed to achieve despite years of effort.
Pressed on how he would achieve what Bush could not, Huckabee said the president had made his case poorly: "When he used the word 'privatization,' it scared the daylights out of a lot of people."
Most of the debate's most striking moments came when the leading candidates managed to define themselves and challenge the stereotypes that now dominate popular perceptions of their candidacies.
McCain brought down the house by mocking Clinton's support for giving $1 million in taxpayer dollars to support a proposed Woodstock Concert Museum. "Now, my friends, I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event," he said, prompting a round of laughter. "I was tied up at the time," added the former Vietnam prisoner of war, a quip that drew a standing ovation.
While the candidates echoed Bush's positions on several issues, they distinguished themselves from him as more hawkish on foreign policy, declaring that they would take a harder line against Russia and Iran. McCain echoed his line that when he looked into Russian President Vladimir Putin's eyes he "saw three letters, a K, a G and a B," adding, "This is a dangerous person."
Giuliani suggested that expanding NATO would help keep Putin's ambitions in check. "Now is the time to make clear to Mr. Putin that America can speak softly but carry a big stick," he said.
Asked about the nuclear threat posed by Iran, Giuliani said that "a nuclear-armed Iran is more dangerous" than going to war to prevent that from happening.
Tancredo, Hunter and Paul played smaller roles on Sunday. Tancredo accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of interfering in foreign policy and provoking Turkey at a sensitive moment by pushing a resolution on Armenian genocide. "Nancy Pelosi is not a very good speaker of the House, and she is an even lousier secretary of state," he said.
Hunter answered a question about Social Security with a lecture on trade policy, prompting an incredulous Hume to ask: "Do you really think we can solve the Social Security and Medicare entitlement programs with trade policy?"
Hunter said the nation's trade deficit is "closely linked with the ability to take care of our seniors, to take care of Medicare and to pay Social Security, absolutely."
As he has before, Paul spoke passionately against the war in Iraq. But he also accused his Republican rivals of being for big government. "Our big-government conservatives, they're part of the neo-conservative movement. They've lost their traditions about traditional conservatism and the Constitution."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.