By Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 29, 2007
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., Nov. 28 -- The Republican candidates for president engaged in a two-hour free-for-all Wednesday night, repeatedly confronting one another directly even as they fielded video questions submitted by Internet users in the most spirited debate of the 2008 presidential campaign.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani immediately set the tone for the combative event, using the first question to continue a weeks-long feud they have waged on the campaign trail. Each accused the other of ignoring laws against illegal immigration and distorting one another's record on the issue.
Giuliani accused Romney of having a "sanctuary mansion" by employing illegal immigrants as lawn workers and of being "holier than thou" on the issue. Romney accused Giuliani of ignoring the laws and of welcoming illegal immigrants to New York. "That's the wrong attitude," Romney charged in a lengthy, heated exchange.
The clash between the two was only the start of what resembled a raucous family argument, stoked by sharp questions that touched on the most contentious issues in the Republican contest: immigration policy, abortion, gun control, same-sex marriage, race and the Confederate flag.
The exchanges at the debate, sponsored by CNN and YouTube, underscored the concerns of all the leading candidates as they jockey for advantage with five weeks remaining until the Iowa caucuses, with no contender gaining a clear edge in the battle for the GOP nomination. It also provided a public forum for the arguments that the candidates have been waging through news releases and stump speeches.
Giuliani got the opening question in the form of a video submitted by a New Yorker, who challenged him for running, as mayor, a sanctuary city for illegal immigrants.
"The reality is, New York was not a sanctuary city," Giuliani responded, noting areas of exception to enforcing the laws on his watch that he said were necessary to maintain the health and safety of city residents.
Giuliani, the GOP front-runner in national polling, was put on the defensive throughout the night as he became the target of his rivals and of several of the questioners. He was booed by some in the audience when he said the government has a right to impose reasonable regulations on gun ownership.
Romney, who leads in surveys testing New Hampshire and Iowa, appeared cautious and unsure in his answers to several tough questions. He struggled to deal with the question whether he still "looked forward to the day" when gays could serve openly in the military. He refused to answer, saying only that "this isn't that time."
But the clash over immigration between Giuliani and Romney quickly engulfed the other candidates. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) defended his support of legislation that many Republicans say amounts to amnesty.
Former senator Fred D. Thompson accused Romney of flip-flopping on immigration and said Giuliani had gone to court seeking to overturn a bill designed to ban sanctuary cities. "I helped pass a bill outlawing sanctuary cities," Thompson said. "The mayor went to court to overturn it. So, if it wasn't a sanctuary city, I'd call that a frivolous lawsuit."
Romney and Huckabee, who are in an increasingly tight battle in Iowa, clashed over whether children of illegal immigrants should receive college scholarships. Romney said Huckabee was wrong to support such a measure in Arkansas, to which Huckabee replied: "In all due respect, we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did."
McCain, whose campaign was damaged by his support for comprehensive immigration legislation, promised along with others that, as president, he would secure the borders, but he called on his rivals to tone down their rhetoric on the hot-button issue. If he becomes president, he said, "We won't have all this other rhetoric that unfortunately contributes nothing to the national dialogue."
Tancredo, the most outspoken opponent of illegal immigration in the Republican field, stood quietly through most of the early minutes. "All I've heard is people trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo," he said.
There were moments of levity, often provided by Huckabee, whose best line of the night was in answer to a question about what Jesus would do about the death penalty.
"Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office," Huckabee said, prompting laughter on the stage and in the audience.
But the debate repeatedly turned serious and confrontational. One of the toughest exchanges came over torture, pitting McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and Romney.
A questioner asked whether any of the candidates disagreed with McCain's contention that the practice of waterboarding constitutes torture. Romney, asked to answer first, hedged, saying that as a candidate for president, he would not specify which techniques he considers torture.
McCain could barely conceal his contempt, saying he was "astonished" that Romney would think the practice might not be torture. When Romney persisted that he would not talk specifics on the issue, McCain ripped him a second time, saying that would mean "you would have to advocate that we withdraw from the Geneva Conventions."
Arguing that this is a defining issue for the country, McCain concluded by saying, "We should be able, if we want to be commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, to take a definite and positive position on, and that is, we will never allow torture to take place in the United States of America.
Later, McCain and Paul clashed over Iraq and foreign policy, with McCain accusing the congressman of the kind of isolationism that allowed Adolf Hitler to come to power in the 1930s.
Giuliani got a question about a report Wednesday on Politico.com about security expenses for mayoral trips to the Hamptons that were allocated to a number of obscure city agencies.
Giuliani denied any wrongdoing, saying New York mayors are provided round-the-clock security. He said he knew nothing about the expensing: "They were handled, as far as I know, perfectly appropriately."
Democrats participated in a YouTube debate in July, but a number of GOP candidates balked at joining a similar forum scheduled for September. They criticized the Democratic debate as undignified, deriding one question presented by a snowman.
Eventually, after criticism from inside the party and out, they relented, and the debate was rescheduled for Wednesday night. The format was considerably more freewheeling and unpredictable than most previous debates and, as with the Democrats, candidates competed with the creativity of questioners from all over the country who had submitted short videos on a wide range of topics.
Almost 5,000 videos were submitted, and the debate sponsors picked 34 for candidates to respond to during the two-hour session. But moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN had plenty of leeway to probe with follow-up questions .
The debate, which was held at the Mahaffey Theater, included all eight active candidates for the Republican nomination. Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) also participated in the event.
The Republican debate came at a moment when the nomination battle has turned sharply negative, particularly between Giuliani and Romney. Giuliani leads most national polls of Republicans, while Romney leads in the two states with the earliest contests, Iowa and New Hampshire -- although Huckabee is now in a statistical dead heat with Romney in Iowa.
When asked whether he would accept the support of the Log Cabin Republicans, a conservative gay organization, Huckabee joked, "You know, in my position in this entire election, I need the support of anybody and everybody I can get."
When the topic turned to whether the next president should commit the nation to putting a person on Mars, he ended his answer by saying, "If we do, I've got a few suggestions, and maybe Hillary [Clinton] could be on the first rocket to Mars."
That quip brought a rebuke from Tancredo, who told Huckabee that his willingness to spend more on space was at the root of the problem of out-of-control spending in Washington. "We can't afford some things, and by the way, going to Mars is one of them."
Paul drew a question about whether he might take his grass-roots support and turn it into an independent campaign for the White House next year. Denying any intention to do so, Paul said he is largely a vehicle for widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo.
"This country is in a revolution," he said. "They're sick and tired of what they're getting. And I happen to be lucky enough to be part of it."