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At S.C. debate, six Republican candidates play nice

Avoid personal jabs and stick to common ground

Republican presidential candidates onstage prior to the debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., yesterday. Left to right are: Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, and Ron Paul. Republican presidential candidates onstage prior to the debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., yesterday. Left to right are: Fred Thompson, Mitt Romney, John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, and Ron Paul. (Melissa Golden/Bloomberg News)
Email|Print| Text size + By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / January 11, 2008

WASHINGTON - Republican presidential contenders, taking a breath after two bruising early-nominating contests, disagreed politely last night about immigration, the economy, and their ability to change Washington.

Saving most of their criticism for the Democrats, six GOP candidates abandoned - at least for the evening - the critical language and sniping that characterized ad campaigns and debates in Iowa and New Hampshire. Instead, the six contenders at the debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., found large areas of agreement on foreign and domestic policy, and even managed to make a few kind personal comments to one another as they made their cases for votes in the Michigan primary on Tuesday and the Jan. 19 primary in South Carolina.

Senator John McCain of Arizona - who last week took several sharp jabs at rival Mitt Romney, accusing him of flip-flopping and distorting McCain's record - last night pulled his verbal punches.

And McCain deferred when asked to expand on earlier comments suggesting former mayor Rudy Giuliani's experience handling the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York did not qualify him to be commander in chief.

"I have the greatest respect and affection for the mayor of New York," McCain said at the debate, which was sponsored by Fox News and the Republican Party of South Carolina. "I have respect for everyone on this stage. I appreciate them. I just believe I'm more qualified."

Romney, too, refrained from direct attacks, instead delivering measured, detailed responses to questions about Pakistan, Iran, and the possibility of a recession.

Romney, tapping a theme that has run through the nominating contests in both parties, cast himself as the candidate of change, suggesting that those candidates on the stage with Washington experience were part of the problem.

"I'm convinced that you're going to see the people say across this country that if you send the same people back to Washington to just sit in different chairs, nothing will happen. My whole life has been about bringing change to the things I've done," Romney said.

The candidates fiercely defended Israel, committing themselves to protecting the US ally in the Middle East, while Representative Ron Paul of Texas also argued that the United States should stop arming Arab countries in the region. All agreed that the commanders who decided not to launch an attack on Iranian boats that threatened US ships Sunday should be trusted to make their own judgments based on the information they had.

Several said they feared that the United States could be headed toward a recession but that it could be avoided by fixing the mortgage crisis and addressing healthcare and energy costs.

And all pledged to secure the nation's borders against illegal immigration, though they agreed to disagree on how to deal with the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.

The debate was the last GOP group face-off before the Michigan primary Tuesday and the South Carolina contest next Saturday. Romney, having placed second in both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, is eager for a win in one of the next two primaries to gain momentum in the race for the Republican nomination.

McCain, who scored a come-from-behind win in New Hampshire, is hoping to thwart Romney in at least one of those states, while former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who won the Iowa caucuses in part because of support from evangelical Christians, is banking that his socially conservative message will resonate with voters in South Carolina.

Huckabee was put on the defensive last night about his religion when one of the moderators asked him about his signature on a 1998 ad in The New York Times, placed by the Southern Baptist Convention, that a wife should be "submissive" to her husband.

Huckabee - who frequently uses his signature humor to defuse testy questions - began his reply with a quip.

"Everybody says religion is off limits, except that they always ask me the religious question," said Huckabee, a Baptist minister. "If anybody knows my wife, I don't think they for one minute think that she's going to just sit by and let me do whatever I want to. That would be an absolute total misunderstanding of Janet Huckabee."

The former governor went on to say that the quote was taken out of context and that the Bible says both a wife and husband should be submissive to each other and to God, each giving 100 percent to the marriage. "I'm not the least bit ashamed of my faith or the doctrines of it. I don't try to impose that as a governor and I wouldn't impose it as a president," Huckabee said, drawing applause from the audience.

Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson, defining himself as a believer in the Reagan doctrine of low taxes and small government, accused Huckabee of being too liberal on social policy to win over Republican voters.

"He would be a Christian leader, but he would also bring about liberal economic policies, liberal foreign policies," Thompson said of the Arkansas lawmaker. "That's not the model of the Reagan coalition. That's the model of the Democratic Party," he said.

Ron Paul, alone on the stage in his opposition to the Iraq war, took his foes to task for their tough talk about Iran. While the contenders agreed that the US commanders on the scene were right to refrain from launching an attack on Iranian speedboats earlier this week, they said the episode was a sign that Iran is still a dangerous foe and may well be seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

"People are looking around for an excuse to bomb Iran. We don't need another war," Paul said.

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