In a Lifeless Debate, Vows of a Spirited Sprint

By Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 13, 2007

DES MOINES, Dec. 12 -- Despite barely engaging each other in a final, lackluster Republican debate here, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee vowed Wednesday to wage a spirited fight in a presidential contest that has become a test of social conservative passions vs. the power of money and organization.

Shortly after leaving the stage, the two men acknowledged that the year-long campaign is now a battle between them for Iowa -- a state that could slingshot one of them to victory in New Hampshire and the GOP presidential nomination, and spell the end for the other's candidacy.

Former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.), who has struggled as a candidate, sought to nudge back into contention with one of his better performances at the debate after pledging this week to campaign "nonstop" in Iowa until the state's Jan. 3 caucuses. But overall, the debate seemed to do little to change the Romney-Huckabee dynamic in the nation's first caucuses.

Romney's personal wealth has helped finance a textbook campaign organization in this Midwestern state that kept him atop the polls for most of the year. But he has been overtaken by Huckabee in recent weeks as Christian conservatives and evangelical voters have flocked to the former Baptist minister.

"I've lived through surges," Romney told supporters after the debate, noting that Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Thompson have all had their moments. "All the surges before were followed by the agonizing reappraisal. . . . Slow and steady wins this race, and I'm planning on winning."

In an interview on CNN, Huckabee dismissed criticism that his sudden success may be fleeting. "Everything that's been written about my political obituary has been wrong," he said. "There's an old saying in the South: It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog that determines the outcome. There's a lot of fight in this dog."

Huckabee said he had apologized to Romney after the debate for having asked a reporter whether Mormons believe Jesus and Satan are brothers. "I went to Mitt Romney and apologized to him, because I said, I would never try, ever, to try to somehow pick out some point of your faith and make it, you know, an issue, and I wouldn't," Huckabee told CNN's Wolf Blitzer.

Huckabee has been criticized for the comment, which was posted on the New York Times' Web site and will appear in the paper's magazine Sunday. Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said his candidate had accepted the apology.

Huckabee was expected to be attacked by his opponents, but he instead glided through the 90-minute debate almost untouched in a session notable for its virtual absence of sharp disagreements. The debate moved rapidly through such topics as the national debt, education and global warming. Questions about two of the campaign's biggest issues, the Iraq war and illegal immigration, were ruled out by the debate's sponsor.

In a new television ad this week, Romney challenged Huckabee's past positions on immigration. But the closest they came to disagreeing during the debate was when Huckabee touted his education record in Arkansas and Romney responded, "I don't believe you had the finest record of any governor on education in America."

Huckabee's rise looms as a major threat to Romney, whose strategy is dependent on victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. But since becoming the front-runner, Huckabee has attracted much harsher scrutiny from his rivals and from the news media, who have begun exploring his gubernatorial record and his past statements about religion and homosexuality.

Both men decided to stay above that fray during the debate, playing it safe in a state whose voters are known to dislike negative campaign tactics. Strategists say negative attacks are particularly dangerous in a multi-candidate race, in which turned-off voters have other choices.

Huckabee used the debate to call for national unity. To a question for all the candidates about their first-year agendas as president, Huckabee said none could accomplish their goals without bringing the country together.

"I think the first priority of the next president is to be a president of all the United States," he said. "We are right now a very polarized country, and that polarized country has led to a paralyzed government."

Romney attempted to stay optimistic about the future and focused on his own experience as a governor and a business executive. "On the private sector, where I spent the first 25 years of my life and most of my career, you learn how to focus on the things that are most important, and you get rid of the things that aren't," he said.

The debate was sponsored by the Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Television and was moderated by Carolyn Washburn, the editor of the Register. The other participants were Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) and former ambassador Alan Keyes. A Democratic debate in Iowa is scheduled for Thursday.

Thompson repeatedly called on Americans to recognize the threats to national and economic security that face the country. He also brought the debate to a temporary halt early in the proceedings when Washburn asked for a show of hands among the candidates on the question of whether they believe global warming is real.

"You want a show of hands. I'm not going to give it to you," Thompson said. That moment encapsulated the tug-and-pull that existed through much of the debate, as the candidates were pressed to keep their answers to 60 seconds or 30 seconds, or in one case to 15 seconds, and they repeatedly sought to provide fuller answers.

Giuliani, whose lead in national polls is shrinking and who has competed sporadically in Iowa, was asked about allegations involving security expenses incurred when he was having an affair with the woman who is now his wife.

"I do the best that I can to learn from my mistakes," he said. "But as far as open, transparent government, I think I've had both an open, transparent government and an open, transparent life."

McCain, whose campaign in Iowa was severely damaged this spring because of his support for President Bush's immigration proposal, offered himself as the most experienced person in the field to deal with national security challenges and terrorist threats. "I have one guiding principle, one ambition, and that is to keep America safe and to achieve and maintain our greatness," he said.

The only lighthearted moments in the debate came from Thompson, a former actor who seemed more at ease on the stage than he has in past forums.

Asked which groups of Americans are more than their fair share of taxes, Thompson joked, "My goal is to get into Mitt Romney's situation, where I don't have to worry about taxes anymore."

Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company