Seven Republican presidential candidates staged a replay of last month's Iowa debate tonight in which the only thing new was the addition of Ronald Reagan.
With six days to go before the New Hampshire primary, the candidates were content to restate the basic positions expressed in their standard stump speeches, interspersed with mild jabs at George Bush. In Iowa, the candidates had jibed at the absent Reagan, but Bush has since become the front-runner.
Except for Rep. John B. Anderson of Illinois, the Republicans called for stronger steps than President Carter has taken to increase military spending and add new weapons systems, deploy them in the Persian Gulf and warn the Soviet Union against what Reagan called the possibility that "there could be a confrontation down the road."
The GOP candidates vied with one another in quoting long-dead presidents and calling for a rebuilding of U.S. military strength.
"Those who desire peace should prepare for war," said Illinois Rep. Philip M. Crane, quoting George Washington.
"Theodore Roosevelt said speak softly and carry a big stick, but Jimmy Carter cut the stick in two," said Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. of Tennessee.
The only spark in a generally impersonal debate came in response to a question from a member of the audience to Reagan, concerning the an ethnic joke he told on the campaign trail last weekend. The questioner said he was an Italian-American and that the joke had implied that "Italians and Poles were either fools or gangsters."
Reagan replied with some heat that he had been "stiffed" by a reporter who overheard him telling a story he was using as an example of a joke that should not be told.
"I don't tell them," Reagan said of ethnic jokes. "I don't like them. I'm going to look over both shoulders from now on, and I'm only going to tell stories about Irishmen because I'm Irish."
He was applauded by the audience.
The other participants in the debate were former Texas governor John B. Connally and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas.
Foreign policy dominated the first part of the debate, as the candidates were asked how they would show toughness against the Soviet Union and prevent the Soviets from seeking to move beyond Afghanistan and into the Persian Gulf region.
Anderson called for trade embargoes, but said he opposed President Carter's call for higher defense spending. Anderson said cutting U.S. dependence on Middle East oil would make the region less desirable to the Soviets. Connally said he favored substantial defense increases and a military presence in the Middle East. Crane called Carter's policy "schizophrenic" and said the United States must demonstrate again that it is a reliable ally.
Bush said he thought the Soviets were confused by Carter's policies and said he favored restoration of some of Carter's earlier cuts in defense programs and support of Pakistan, but opposed permanent basing of U.S. military forces in the Middle East.
Baker taking a shot at Bush, said he didn't think the Soviets were confused, but rather that they believed the United States was a "patsy, flirting with unilateral disarmament." He said he feared a Soviet "peace offensive" in the near future that would make Americans forget about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Dole said he favored a U.S. presence in Pakistan, but also that the two superpowers should continue to talk about an arms agreement because "nuclear war is not winnable," a reference opposing a position Bush argued in a recent newspaper interview.
Reagan said he favored "a grand strategy for the '80s and beyond" that would give the United States contingency plans to deal with future Soviet aggression. He said he had opposed the grain embargo against the Soviets because it hurt American farmers, and said the United States must build its defenses to intimidate the Russians.
After the foreign policy questions were out of the way, a question on domestic issues allowed several of the contenders to vent their frustration with the press' focus on the horse-race aspect of the contest.
Bush waved a fistful of position papers at the television camera and said his views were all on the record, even though opponents complained that he was vague on the issues.
Anderson, once again seeking to show he was the "different" Republican, commented sardonically that "instead of waving position papers around," Bush and the others should state their positions. Anderson thereupon reaffirmed his support of freedom of choice on abortion, and licensing of handguns, and his opposition to prescribed prayers in public schools -- all positions that set him apart from the field.
Reagan, who preceded him in the rotation, took precisely opposite stands. Connally and Dole, both lagging in the polls, said they would welcome more attention to their issues, with Dole adding, to laughter, "Not only would it be refreshing but in my case it would be helpful."
One question, addressed to Bush, on how to combat inflation demonstrated the wide array of economic solutions advocated by the seven Republican presidential candidates.
Bush favored indexing tax rates. Baker and Dole favored a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. Reagan would freeze federal hiring and reduce taxes by 30 percent over the next three years. Anderson called for a balanced fiscal and monetary policy. Connally advocated a moratorium on taxes on interest in savings accounts and opposed indexing. Crane advocated a return to the gold standard.
Bush was the most optimistic and the least specific on this issue.
"We are wringing our hands saying we can't break the back of inflation," he said. "I don't believe it."
Anderson said President Carter's economic guidelines have not worked.
"What we need is a president courageous enought not to have [Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul A.] Volcker stand there like a little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike." Anderson said.
Asked for specifics on where they would cut the Carter budget, several of the Republicans followed Baker's lead in saying that expansion of general revenue-sharing would lead to substantial savings of administrative costs on existing categorical grants. Crane estimated the savings at $50 billion.
Connally suggested abolishing the new Department of Education and Crane went him one better by saying the Energy Department also should be eliminated.
Among the specific cuts mentioned were Anderson's suggestion that Law Enforcement Assistance Administration grants could be eliminated and Bush's suggestion that $1 billion of public employment funds could be better spent subsidizing jobs in the private sector.
Reagan repeated his familiar call for an "orderly transfer" of welfare and other federal programs -- and the taxes to support them -- to the states.
When the soundness of the Social Security trust fund was questioned, Reagan took the strongest stand -- saying it was "trillions of dollars out of balance in actuarial terms." While he favored the fund, Reagan said he would guarantee current beneficiaries against loss of payments.
Connally suggested that, among other topics, the 65-year-old retirement age should be reexamined in the light of increasing life expectancy.
Dole and Baker expressed doubts about the immediate severity of Social Security funding problems, but they and Crane said further benefits should not be added to the fund without providing revenue from the general treasury.
Anderson said his proposed 50-cent-a-gallon gasoline tax would enable Social Security taxes to be cut in half, but Baker said he opposed such a plan because it would "play havoc" with drivers in states like New Hampshire. p
When the seven were asked whether they would remove G. William Miller as treasury secretary because of alleged violations of federal laws that occurred when he was head of Textron Inc., only Anderson was willing to say he would.
"These violations were deliberately concealed," Anderson said. "We should expect a higher standard of judgment from a Cabinet officer."
The other candidates indicated they didn't know enough to make a judgment. But Reagan, to whom the question was addressed, digressed and suggested that U.S. companies when offering bribes abroad were simply accepting the standards of other countries.
When Reagan finally returned to the question of Miller, his time had expired.
Baker said that "there's a terrible temptation in American politics these days to be righteous," but said he would continue to believe Miller unless he was proved guilty.
Dole, alone among the candidates, called for a special prosecutor to investigate Miller.
Then the forum turned to questions from the audience. The questions were addressed to one candidate, with no comment from the others.
The first question, on energy, went to Anderson, who was asked what he would do to relieve New England, which is highly dependent on expensive home heating oil.
Anderson called for prompt approval of a conference report on the crude oil tax that would give relief to poor families and provide for greater reliance on the use of such renewable resources as wood, wind and hydropower.
When Connally was asked about nationalizing the oil industry, he appeared not to believe his ears, then said: "I'm not for the nationalization of anything. Great Britain went through that and it destroyed their country."
A question put to Crane about federal regulation elicited the suggestion that administrative agencies be barred from ordering any rules into effect that would add to unemployment or create additional costs unless both houses of Congress approved.
Bush took a question on his civil rights views as an opportunity to express support for "affirmative-action programs, but not quotas."
In the one-minute closing speech allowed the candidates at this 90-minute forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters, most of them again repeated generalities from their stump speeches.
Anderson reverted to his challenge in Iowa, calling upon the other GOP candidates to advocate specific policies to conserve energy. Against the opposition of all the other candidates, Anderson favors a 50-cent-a-gallon tax on gasoline.
Dole used his closing statement to take a shot at both Reagan and Bush, who plan to hold a two-way debate Saturday that will be sponsored by the Nashua Telegraph. Dole, Baker and Anderson have asked to be admitted and have claimed that the two-way debate violates federal election laws.
"I hope that George Bush and Gov. Reagan will let us get together again on Saturday night," Dole said to laughter from the audience.