By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 25, 2008
BOCA RATON, Fla., Jan. 24 -- In a debate here Thursday, Republican White House hopefuls called on President Bush to embrace deeper tax cuts to stimulate the economy, as each sought to portray himself to Florida voters as the true conservative in a race that will shift to a nationwide test in less than two weeks.
The mostly civil forum came at a critical moment in the muddled GOP competition, and the five remaining candidates appeared eager to avoid some of the sharper differences that have sparked tough exchanges. Instead, they played it safe and were often cordial to one another five days before Florida's primary election, which could end one or more candidacies.
Tuesday's vote will be particularly important for former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has staked his fading campaign on a win here. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney are seeking momentum and a springboard into the Super Tuesday contests on Feb. 5, when 21 states will hold GOP primaries or caucuses.
But rather than raucous exchanges about immigration or social issues, the three sought to appeal to Florida voters and burnish their credentials on the economy, an issue that has dominated their stump speeches as the stock market tumbled in recent weeks.
"What it does is okay, and I would support it, but it doesn't go far enough," Giuliani said of the economic stimulus package that Bush and congressional leaders announced Thursday. "I think, in the face of what's been going on, which obviously is a matter of serious concern, we should be very aggressive."
McCain said he was "disappointed" with the stimulus plan because it does not include a proposal to make the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 permanent. Romney said of Bush's proposal: "There's a great deal that is effective in his plan. I just wish it went further."
The debate offered Romney a chance to shine as he received several opportunities to discuss economic issues and his experience in the private sector. McCain performed well but was under pressure to explain how his early opposition to Bush's tax cuts squares with his support for making them permanent now.
The debate was sponsored by MSNBC and was moderated by NBC anchors Brian Williams and Tim Russert. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee also participated in the 90-minute exchange at Florida Atlantic University.
Williams and Russert tried unsuccessfully several times to get the candidates to engage one another. Russert observed afterward that it seemed as though the contenders had made a "nonaggression" pact.
Instead, much of the debate was characterized by lighthearted moments, even when the rivals were offered a chance to question one another.
None took the opportunity to focus on an overly controversial issue, preferring instead to lob easy queries that gave the recipient a chance to recite portions of his stump speech.
Romney began the round by asking Giuliani how he would manage the nation's economic relationship with China to ensure that "we protect American industry and American jobs." The former mayor responded that the United States needs to focus on how to best take advantage of the opportunity that China's rapidly growing middle class presents: "They need to buy what we have."
Several minutes later, Giuliani joked that perhaps Romney's overture reflected the fact that his GOP rivals no longer consider the former mayor's candidacy a threat after he finished well behind in the pack in every contest held so far. "When Mitt Romney asked me a question, he asked me a very nice question. I think I lulled him into a false sense of security," he said. Giuliani, who has staked his struggling candidacy on Florida but is running third in most polls, added later in the debate: "We're going to come from behind; we're going to win here in Florida."
McCain was just as accommodating as he queried Huckabee about his support of replacing the current tax code with a national sales tax. He asked the former governor how he would deflect criticism that a flat-out sales tax would "cause lower-income Americans more of the pain and the burden of paying for our government," and he took the opportunity to tack on a question about why Huckabee's proposal had resonated with the public.
"Well, the reason that it's getting resonance is because people would love to see the IRS abolished," Huckabee said. "I think most of us realize that there's got to be a better system. The one we have now is irreparably broken."
Paul was more assertive, asking whether McCain would retain the president's working group on financial markets. But that, too, did not lead to a fierce exchange, and neither did Huckabee's question for Romney about his position on gun rights, to which Romney replied: "I do support the right of individuals to bear arms."
In one of the debate's more awkward moments, Romney made an ambiguous comment about Bill Clinton when asked how he would run against the former president and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton if she wins the Democratic nomination.
"I frankly can't wait, because the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House with nothing to do is something I just can't imagine. I can't imagine, the American people can't imagine, and I," he said, leading Russert to retort, "What does that mean?"
"I just think that we want to have a president, not a whole -- a team of husband and wife thinking that they're going to run the country," Romney said.
Later, Russert pressed Romney to disclose how much of his personal fortune he had poured into his campaign so Floridians could factor it into their voting decision. Romney replied that he will release that information on Jan. 31, as required by law, "and not a minute sooner," because that could give his rivals an advantage.
"I'm not worried about the voters. I'm much more concerned about the other guys on this stage," he said, adding that he wants to improve the country his children will "inherit." "I'm in this race because I want to help America."
Huckabee later quipped that he has a solution: He is willing to become president to ensure that Romney's sons inherit a better country, and that "your boys will still get your money, too."
McCain's 95-year-old mother, Roberta -- who has made several controversial statements during her son's presidential run -- became an unexpected topic of the debate.
McCain was asked about comments she made earlier in the day that members of his party would be "holding their nose while backing him." McCain laughed and said he has a "very, very conservative record."
With the exception of Paul, who said the Iraq war was "a very bad idea and it wasn't worth it," all of the candidates defended the decision to go to war but acknowledged that the conflict has been badly mismanaged.
Huckabee offered a new analogy to explain his belief that weapons of mass destruction may have been in Iraq before the war, saying: "Just because you don't find every Easter egg doesn't mean it wasn't planted."
Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.