GOP foes tout conservative credentials
Key candidates face attacks at debate in S.C.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It was a fitting question for the 10 candidates taking part in the first Republican presidential debate held in the Bible Belt: Who among them is a true conservative, and who is not?
The GOP contenders clashed mightily on that point last night in their second rendezvous of the 2008 primary race, with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and Arizona Senator John McCain all coming under fierce attack at times for being insufficiently conservative for the Republican base.
Romney, perhaps targeted because of his strong performance in the last debate, endured harsh attacks from his rivals for inconstancy, most notably from McCain after Romney provoked the senator over his record on immigration and campaign finance reform.
"I haven't changed my position on even-numbered years or changed because of the different offices I may be running for," McCain said dismissively, in his sharpest criticism to date of Romney and his shifts to more conservative positions on a host of issues.
But McCain, too, took heat from his fellow candidates for some of his positions, including his opposition to the United States using torture techniques against terrorism detainees. When the moderator, Brit Hume of FOX News, asked candidates how they would respond to a terrorism scenario, several took issue with McCain's rejection of using extreme interrogation techniques to prevent another attack.
"I would tell the people who had to do the interrogation to use every method they can think of," Giuliani said, quickly adding that there "shouldn't be torture." But, he said, "I don't want to see another 3,000 people dead."
Giuliani, whose support for abortion rights has caused him major friction among some conservatives, found himself on the defensive on the issue again last night. His explanation that he was personally opposed to abortion but felt women deserved to make their own choice did not sit well with opponents such as Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and a Baptist minister.
"If it's wrong then we ought to be opposed to it, and we ought to find better ways to deal with our respect for human life," Huckabee said.
The jousting over who was the most conservative continued throughout the 90-minute debate, held at the University of South Carolina. McCain continued to rail against federal spending. Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas explained why he opposed abortion even in cases of rape. And US Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado suggested global warming may not be happening.
Giuliani got off probably the best applause line of the night. Incredulous after US Representative Ron Paul of Texas suggested that the United States helped invite the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Giuliani said: "That's an extraordinary statement. I don't think I've ever heard that before and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for Sept. 11."
And Huckabee, who appeared to distinguish himself among the second-tier candidates, got off the best laugh line of the night with a jab at Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards for spending $400 on a haircut. "We've had a Congress that spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop," Huckabee said.
Last night's debate was sponsored by the South Carolina Republican Party and FOX News. The GOP candidates first met May 3 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., and they are scheduled to debate again in New Hampshire early next month. Also participating were former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson; former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore; and US Representative Duncan Hunter of California.
Each of the major candidates was forced to defend himself against a potential weak spot.
McCain, challenged on his record of bucking party orthodoxy, made no apologies for working with Democrats on bipartisan legislation. "They want us to work together," he said of the American people. "They want us to reach across the aisle and get things done."
Romney, who was pressed several times on social issues, instructed critics to look at his record as Massachusetts governor.
"I've had to stand up for life and I have," he said. "I've had to stand up for traditional marriage and I have." But Romney, a Mormon, did not face questions about his religion, a point of concern for some Southern Baptists in South Carolina, the state expected to hold the first southern primary next year.
Giuliani tried to steer the debate away from social issues and toward fiscal responsibility. "There's something really bigger at stake here," said Giuliani, adding that he would not replace many of the federal employees expected to retire in coming years.
Iraq also played a prominent role in the debate. McCain and Romney talked about how the United States must succeed in Iraq for its own national interests, and McCain said flatly that Republicans did not lose last year's midterm elections over the war, but over out-of-control spending. Huckabee continued his criticism of how the Bush administration prosecuted the war.
"We're doing a lot of things over," he said. "Maybe we should have just done it right."
The scene yesterday in Columbia was far more lively than the quiet California hilltop where the first debate was held.
Sign-toting supporters of McCain and Romney spent the hours before the debate trying to out-shout each other -- the Romney camp wearing red, white, and blue "Team Romney" T-shirts, the McCain camp shaking blue cowbells. One group of young Romney enthusiasts was perched on a rusty trailer a volunteer had parked in the middle of the street.
"Why do I support Mitt Romney?" said Caroline Jameson, a 20-year-old Georgia native and political science major at the University of South Carolina. "He actually represents what conservative values are."
McCain backers, such as 25-year-old David Haskins of Greenville, S.C., were equally upbeat.
"I may not agree with him on every issue . . . but I know he votes based on principle, not because that's what the head of the party wants him to do or even the [public] wants him to do," said Haskins, who sells computers and attends Furman University.
Giuliani, as of a couple of hours before the debate, had only a handful of supporters, nearly all of them firefighters.
Romney, meanwhile, kicked off an effort last night to sign up 24,000 new supporters in 24 hours, which his campaign hopes will broaden his fund-raising base and preserve his dominance over his Republican rivals in the so-called money primary this year.
Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.