By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 6, 2008
MANCHESTER, N.H., Jan. 5 -- Three days before New Hampshire voters go to the polls, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney engaged in a confrontational televised debate with his fellow Republican presidential contenders, clashing over foreign policy, immigration, character and negative campaigning.
Romney accused his chief rival in the state, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants. "I have never supported amnesty," McCain retorted angrily, adding, "You can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads, but they still won't be true."
Clearly feeling under siege and trailing McCain in two polls released Saturday, Romney was repeatedly in the crosshairs of his rivals. After one sharp exchange with Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee, Romney accused his opponents of attacking his character rather than engaging in a serious debate. They, in turn, accused him of flip-flopping. "Is there a way to have this about issues and not about personal attacks?" he asked. "I hope so."
As he seeks to recover from his defeat in Iowa in a state where he was once a strong front-runner, Romney has reinvented his pitch to voters here, turning throwaway lines from his speeches of the past month into the central theme of his candidacy. Gone is the discussion of how important it is for young people to "get married before they have babies." Gone is the story about his father's main accomplishment being raising his four sons. Gone is the shtick about how Midwestern values are the same as heartland values and Yankee values.
In their place is an attempt to convince voters that Romney is the Republican equivalent of Democrats Barack Obama and John Edwards -- the only candidate who can bring radical change to a Washington establishment mired in bureaucracy and old thinking. "I spent my life changing things. I did not spend my life in politics, talking about changing things," he told a crowd in Bedford earlier in the day.
But when Romney sought at the debate to cast himself as the candidate of change, embracing what he said was the lesson of Obama's victory in Iowa, McCain sarcastically referred to the criticism that Romney has frequently changed his positions: "We disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree you are the candidate of change."
Earlier, Romney criticized Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, for writing that President Bush's foreign policy has "an arrogant bunker mentality." That prompted a feisty Huckabee to accuse Romney of supporting a timed withdrawal from Iraq.
"Governor, don't try to characterize my position," Romney retorted.
"Which one?" Huckabee shot back, prompting Romney to accuse him of engaging in a personal attack.
The exchange capped a six-way argument sparked by host Charlie Gibson, who asked whether the candidates support Bush's policy of preemptive war. The leading candidates all embraced the policy, but then ganged up on Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) for repeating his belief that terrorism is sparked by U.S. foreign policy.
In the first half-hour, Gibson sought from the candidates a statement of the principles on which they would base a presidency. Later, they discussed how to provide health-care coverage to the uninsured, prompting a sharp exchange between McCain and Romney over the role of drug companies.
"Don't turn the pharmaceuticals into the big, bad guys," Romney said.
"They are," McCain said.
A new poll conducted after last Thursday's Iowa caucuses by CNN and WMUR-TV reported McCain's support in New Hampshire at 33 percent; Romney's was at 27 percent.
The debate was held at St. Anselm College and was hosted by ABC News and the Facebook Web site. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) also participated in the 90-minute exchange.
The six candidates sniped at each other but agreed on many issues. The exception was Paul, whose angry, anti-government rhetoric once again introduced an element of surprise into the debate. Paul has raised nearly $19 million, making him a wild card in the race.
Most of the candidates affirmed their support for Bush's approach to foreign policy, saying he was right to attack Iraq and to increase troops on the ground there in 2007. McCain and Romney praised Bush for preventing another terrorist attack on U.S. soil after Sept. 11, 2001; Giuliani said by making the decision to "go on offense" against terrorists, "the president got the big decision of his presidency right."
Thompson also defended the invasion of Iraq, saying, "The bottom line is, we are in a global war. . . . We must do whatever is necessary to protect ourselves."
Huckabee said he supports the war in Iraq and the increase in troops, but said he thinks the country needs sufficient military might before engaging in wars overseas. "We [need to] make sure we have what we need before we go to war," Huckabee said.
And while every Republican called for cracking down on illegal immigration, the candidates sharply disagreed on how to deal with the millions of illegal immigrants currently living in the United States. Huckabee, Romney and Thompson proposed expelling them; Giuliani and McCain called for making distinctions among them.
Saying it is "just impossible" to "throw out 12 million people," Giuliani noted that even President Ronald Reagan chose to grant amnesty to some illegal immigrants. "I think he'd be in one of Mitt's negative commercials," Giuliani added, sparking laughter from the audience. "None of us has a perfect record on immigration."
But Romney said such an approach is unacceptable. "I disagree fundamentally with the idea that the 12 million people who have come here illegally should all be allowed to remain in the United States permanently," he said. "I think that's a form of amnesty, and that is not appropriate."
In a sign of how the political field has shifted since the Iowa caucuses, each Republican spoke on how he would face Obama in the general election. Thompson criticized him as liberal; McCain said he lacks the foreign policy experience and the background to be president.
But Romney said those arguments would fall flat, since Obama's Democratic rivals had already tried them and Obama "blew them away. It's a message of change."
Romney claimed a minor victory in Wyoming on Saturday night, capturing eight of the state's 12 delegates in the party convention. But his focus remained on New Hampshire, where he is attempting to cast himself as the only outsider willing to take on corruption and special interests.
Romney's aides insist that the message about change is not a new one, noting that he has often mentioned his success in helping to turn around the 2002 Winter Olympics. "We've added some exclamation points to the argument that Governor Romney has been making since the start of his campaign," spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said.
Earlier in the day, McCain held his 100th town hall meeting in the state, drawing so many visitors to Peterborough that dozens of voters and reporters were left out in the cold, blocked by the fire marshal in order to prevent overcrowding.
Huckabee spent the day trying to show another side of the Christian leader he emphasized in Iowa, portraying himself as a fun-loving, guitar-playing man who really likes actor Chuck Norris.
"There's a lot of sides to him," said Debra Vanderbeek, Huckabee's state director here. "It's important to show that to a lot of people who haven't heard much of him" before the Iowa victory.
Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.