Republicans Play to Right in Fla. Debate

During a televised presidential debate Thursday night, Republican candidates had the opportunity to question each other. Each candidate was allowed to ask one question.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 25, 2008; Page A01

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."

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