Hopefuls Clash in Debate as 1st Southern Primary Nears

GOP presidential hopefuls, from left, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Rudolph Giuliani and Ron Paul gather before the debate.
GOP presidential hopefuls, from left, Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Rudolph Giuliani and Ron Paul gather before the debate. (By Mary Ann Chastain -- Associated Press)
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By Perry Bacon Jr. and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 11, 2008

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C., Jan. 10 -- The leading Republican presidential candidates used a Fox News debate Thursday night to draw contrasts with their rivals on the economy, U.S. relations with Iran, immigration and political change in advance of two primaries next week that are expected to winnow the field.

In their last televised meeting before critical contests in Michigan and South Carolina, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney accused Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) of pessimism about the nation's economy for saying that some outsourced jobs are never coming back to hard-hit communities. "I'm going to fight for every single job," Romney said in the opening moments of the debate.

McCain responded by saying that he was offering the kind of "straight talk" that voters appreciate, and that the government is obligated to help laid-off workers through a "rough patch" by offering training and other programs. But he did not back off, saying that "there are some jobs that aren't coming back to Michigan. There are some jobs that won't come back here to South Carolina."

Moments later, former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) lashed out at former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, charging the winner of the Iowa caucuses with a litany of conservative heresies, including supporting taxpayer-funded programs for illegal immigrants, a smoking ban and liberal economic policies, as well as opposing school vouchers.

"So much for federalism," an animated Thompson said. "So much for states' rights. So much for individual rights."

Huckabee, who is jousting with Thompson and McCain in South Carolina for a victory in the nation's first Southern primary on Jan. 19, dismissed the accusations. "If you're not catching flak, you're not over the target," he said. "I'm catching flak; I must be over the target."

The debate exposed the ever-shifting dynamics in the GOP race. The clashes came as six of the seven remaining Republican presidential candidates braced for another week-long two-primary sprint that will take the competition to the Deep South and the industrial Midwest. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) also participated. Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) was not invited.

The forum, moderated by Fox News anchor Brit Hume and co-sponsored by the South Carolina Republican Party, was the last chance for voters to see the candidates together before the Michigan primary on Tuesday and the South Carolina primary just four days later.

On foreign policy, several candidates sharply criticized Paul, who called for the end of U.S. involvement in Iraq and criticized U.S. foreign policy in other areas. Asked about his supporters view that the United States was complicit in the Sept. 11 attacks, he said: "I've abandoned those viewpoints. I don't believe that."

With the other candidates in agreement that Navy sailors had properly handled an incident over the weekend in which U.S. officials said that Iranian speedboats threatened three American warships in international waters in the Strait of Hormuz, Paul said: "People are looking around for an excuse to bomb Iran. . . . We don't need another war."

Romney slammed Paul, accusing him of reading "press releases" from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while McCain said: "I'm not interested in trading with al-Qaeda. All they want to trade is burqas. I don't want to travel with them. They like one-way tickets."

Huckabee said that the U.S. military must be strong enough that aggressors should "be prepared that the next things you see will be the gates of hell."

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