GOP Hopefuls Hold Debate in South Carolina
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Republican presidential candidates were preparing for a debate yesterday when they received a reminder of a significant force in their party. It's the power of religious conservatives. The Reverend Jerry Falwell died yesterday, and we'll have more on that in a moment.
Several Republicans paid tribute to Falwell. And when the candidates debated in South Carolina, one of many questions was how consistently they had followed conservative positions.
Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON: Ronald Reagan may be the favored president of every one of the candidates, but last night his 11th commandment, thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican, was honored in the breach. The candidates seemed eager to engage each other directly. Here's former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, followed by Arizona Senator John McCain.
Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Governor of Massachusetts; Republican Presidential Candidate): And my fear is that McCain-Kennedy would do to immigration what McCain-Feingold has done to campaign finance and money in politics, and that's bad.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): I take and kept a consistent position on campaign finance reforms. Is there anyone who believes there's not enough money washing around, money in politics, which has corrupted our own party? I have kept a consistent position on right to life and I haven't changed my position on even numbered years or have changed because of the different offices that I may be running for.
LIASSON: Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was the target when the issue was abortion. Unlike his confusing answers about Roe versus Wade in the first Republican debate, last night Giuliani stuck to us straightforward of his pro-abortion rights position.
Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Republican Presidential Candidate; Former Mayor of New York City): There are people, millions and millions of Americans, who are as of good conscience as we are who make a different choice about abortion. And I think in a country where you want to keep government out of people's lives, you have to respect that.
LIASSON: But that wasn't good enough for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who criticized Giuliani for claiming to hate abortion while supporting abortion rights.
Unidentified Man: Governor, has the mayor persuaded you?
Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Governor of Arkansas; Republican Presidential Candidate): He has not. If something is morally wrong, let's oppose it. The honest argument is I don't think it's morally wrong and someone could take that position and then justify abortion. But 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.
LIASSON: The candidates were given a hypothetical scenario. Terrorists had attacked the U.S. and a few with knowledge of another attack had been captured and taken to Guantanamo. Would they use torture to get information? McCain said as president in that kind of million-to-one scenario he would take that responsibility. But, he said, he considers torture what the administration calls enhanced interrogation techniques.
Sen. MCCAIN: The use of torture - we could never gain as much we would gain from that torture as we lose in world opinion. We do not torture people. When I was in Vietnam, one of the things that sustained us as we underwent torture ourselves is the knowledge that if we had our positions reversed and we were the captors, we would not impose that kind of treatment on them. It's not about the terrorists; it's about us.
LIASSON: Giuliani, on the other hand, was not hesitant about endorsing the use of enhanced interrogation techniques including water boarding.
Mr. GIULIANI: I would tell the people who had to do the interrogation to use every method they could think of, shouldn't be torture, but every method they can think of. And I would support them in doing that because I've seen what…
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. GIULIANI: I've seen what can happen when you…
LIASSON: This is the response Giuliani gets at the slightest mention of his role on 9/11. It's something no other candidate can match. Mitt Romney did his best to show that he would be tough on terrorists, too.
Mr. ROMNEY: You said the person is going to be in Guantanamo. I'm glad they're at Guantanamo. I don't want them on our soil. I want them on Guantanamo where they don't get the access to lawyers they get when they are on our soil. I don't want them in our prisons. I want them there. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo, my view is we ought to double Guantanamo. We have to make sure that the terrorists…
(Soundbite of applause)
LIASSON: Romney, Giuliani and McCain spent much of the debate last night defending their conservative credentials on domestic issues. None of them fits the traditional conservative profile for a Republican candidate, something that the second tier candidates in the field find frustrating. Here's Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo.
Representative TOM TANCREDO (Republican, Colorado; Presidential Candidate): You know, it's beginning to truly sound like a Baptist tent revival meeting here, and I'm glad to see conversions. I'm glad they happen. But I must tell you, I trust those conversions when they happen on the road to Damascus and not on the road to Des Moines.
LIASSON: Or, Tancredo might have added, on the road to Manchester, New Hampshire, where the Republican candidates will meet for their next debate on June 5th.
Mara Liasson, NPR News.