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."
The candidates used the national forum to repeat their latest campaign slogans. Romney said he is the candidate of "change" who will take government apart and "put it back together, simpler, smaller, smarter." McCain vowed to cut wasteful spending and bragged about having pushed President Bush to adopt the troop build-up strategy in Iraq. Huckabee touted his work as a governor in improving education and building roads.
Thompson, who has staked his candidacy on a victory in South Carolina, was particularly aggressive, going after Huckabee on taxes by suggesting that he signed a no-tax pledge only after it was politically advantageous.
The Fox panel repeatedly offered tough questions, asking Huckabee whether he endorses a religious pronouncement about wives being submissive to their husbands. The Southern Baptist minister, after noting the irony of being consistently told that religion should be off-limits in the campaigns and then bombarded with questions about the topic by reporters, gave a mini-sermon about the need for husbands and wives to show submission to each other.
On immigration, McCain and Romney agreed that people in the United States must be treated in a "humane" way, but Romney said to applause from the audience that those here illegally must "go home."
Michigan and South Carolina have emerged as critical battlegrounds in a Republican race that found no clear front-runner last week in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Rather, the first two contests further scrambled a presidential nominating contest that has been difficult to handicap from the beginning.
Romney scrapped plans to spend Friday in South Carolina after pulling his television commercials off the air in the state. His campaign hurriedly assembled a more vigorous schedule in Michigan, where Romney's father served as governor and he hopes to make a stand against McCain.
Both men plan to wage an intensive battle in Michigan over the next four days in bids to erase doubts about their candidacies. McCain needs to demonstrate that his appeal can grow beyond New Hampshire, and Romney is desperate for a clear victory after placing second in the first two marquee contests.
Huckabee is making an aggressive push in Michigan and is counting on South Carolina to give his campaign another big boost. He is building a much more robust campaign operation in the state and is continuing to court the evangelical Christians who helped propel him to victory in Iowa.
All three are casting a wary eye toward Florida, where Giuliani is waiting for whomever makes it through the next week's gantlet. The former mayor's campaign began running two new television commercials Thursday and announced a bus tour of the Sunshine State that will begin Sunday.
A Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll released Thursday showed McCain leading the field in South Carolina, with Huckabee in second place and Romney in third. In Michigan, polls indicated a close race, with Huckabee and Romney leading in some surveys and McCain topping the contest in a poll taken just before his New Hampshire victory.
Huckabee's campaign, after saying last week that it might be too expensive to run in Michigan, is now planning to have him spend the weekend there, starting with a Friday speech on the economy. His campaign also began running an ad called "Understanding," aimed at struggling working-class Americans.
"I believe most Americans want their next president to remind them of the guy who they work with, not the guy who laid them off," Huckabee says in the ad, a not-so-veiled swipe at the businessman Romney.
"We're going full-bore in Michigan. We're trying to give Romney a bronze," said Huckabee campaign chairman Ed Rollins, referring to the former Massachusetts governor's assertion that he has "two silvers" and a "gold," from his second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire and a win in the little-noticed Wyoming caucus.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin in Washington contributed to this report.