GOP Presidential Candidates Set for Second Debate

The Republican presidential candidates are due for their second debate in South Carolina Tuesday night. But they aren't fairing well on issues concerning the Iraq war.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's go next to South Carolina, where Republican presidential gathers for their second debate. Their first encounter was defined by so-called values issues, especially abortion. But the war in Iraq looms large, may loom large tonight, with Congress and the White House still at odds over a war-funding bill.

NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams joins us now for some analysis. Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Any Republicans put a lot of distance between themselves and President Bush on the war?

WILLIAMS: Not really. There are only a few candidates who've differed with the president. I'm thinking Senator John McCain has said that while he supports the president's surge in Iraq, that mistakes have been made, many mistakes have been made along the way, especially not putting more troops in there from the beginning. Tommy Thompson, in the first debate, suggested it could be time for Iraqis to have a referendum of their own on whether U.S. troops should remain in the country, and even thought about ways in which the country could be divided up.

But so far, Steve, the frontrunners - Rudolph Giuliani, for example - have been very supportive of the president. Kansas Senator Sam Brownback has said there is no military solution, but then he hasn't articulated exactly what should be done. He said we should look for more diplomatic solutions. And candidates like Duncan Hunter and others have taken a strong pro-war stance in keeping with the fact that 75 percent of registered Republicans are still supporting this war.

INSKEEP: Juan, as you know, there are some Republicans who have said they're not going to support this war forever, that they could change their minds in the coming months depending on results from Iraq. Any of the presidential candidates hedging their bets?

WILLIAMS: Well, they're really at the trailing edge of the movement away from President Bush, as represented by the fact that you had moderate Republicans going over the White House last week to tell the president that the party is suffering under the weight of the war and his low poll standings. Ron Paul, the congressman from Texas, is, I think, the only Republican in the race right now - and he's a marginal candidate - who has indicated that, you know, that it's time for U.S. troops to begin withdrawing.

There are really no moderates, Steve, in this field, in this presidential field on the GOP side. That's one reason why there is increasing pressure on moderates like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel to get in the mix.

INSKEEP: Well, there are a few moderates on issues other than Iraq, I suppose you could say. Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, has a position on abortion that is different from a lot of traditional conservatives, although he's been trying to explain his decision on abortion. What's he saying?

WILLIAMS: What he says is that, you know, it's between God, a woman, and her doctor, although he personally opposes abortion. And he's also tried to appeal to the base, maybe, you know, calm them down because of the differences between his position and the traditional Republican position, by saying he'd appoint strict constructionist judges. But so far it hasn't worked, Steve. And so it sounds like on abortion to lots of conservative ears, as one leading conservative, he sounds - Giuliani sounds like Hillary Clinton. And the Baptist convention has said that Giuliani's views are repugnant. And it's led into all sorts of talk about Giuliani and his marriages and being estranged from his own children. It's a real problem for the Giuliani campaign and he's going to have to try to deal with it. The question is, can he deal with it. And if he doesn't, it's likely to grow.

INSKEEP: And very briefly, so there's this debate tonight. Republicans will all be on the stage. They all look about the same size. But what size will they really be when it comes down to their purses, their wallets?

WILLIAMS: Well, that's a good one, because so far Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has been the biggest fundraiser. But what's telling here, Steve, is that Republicans are trailing Democrats overall in fundraising. Barack Obama has out-raised Mitt Romney. Senator Hillary Clinton has out-raised Mitt Romney. I think it's an indication that the Democratic base is much more engaged, energized, if you will. The Republican base is still searching for a candidate. And that's why you still have people like Fred Thompson and others - Newt Gingrich - hanging around, looking to see what's going to happen.

INSKEEP: Okay. Thanks very much. Analysis from NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams on NPR News.

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