Conservative Crowd Critiques GOP Performances
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
Immigration was just one of the issues debated last night by the 10 Republican candidates for president. They met at Saint Anselm College of Manchester, New Hampshire, and they spent much of their time trying to differentiate themselves from President Bush.
NPR's Linda Wertheimer watched the debate with a group of Republicans and voters who lean Republican. She sent this report.
LINDA WERTHEIMER: More than a dozen friends and neighbors gathered at the home of Joan Miller(ph) in Bedford, a suburb of Manchester. She's an active Republican. She lives in a prosperous area of large homes tucked into the woods and hills above the Merrimack River Valley. Most of the people we met are retired from or still working at executive positions in large companies, computer-related businesses and manufacturing. They watched the debate quietly for the most part, with occasional murmurs of agreement with the candidates' answer.
At the midpoint break, I asked Randy Snider(ph) who had impressed him, and he instantly said, when Rudy Giuliani speaks, people listen especially about terrorism.
Mr. RANDY SNIDER (Resident, Bedford, New Hampshire): And that's where he's going to shine in that sort of I'm here and with me you can sleep at night. And that's what he's running around, and it comes across. It comes across very effectively, I think.
WERTHEIMER: Sort of a tough cop?
Mr. SNIDER: Yeah. Clearly, he was.
WERTHEIMER: Randy Snider also thought Mitt Romney was too political, making speeches rather than answering questions. Ninety percent of the time, it was inappropriate, he said. And others felt the same way. But Andy Bridges(ph) liked that about Romney. Terrorism is his big issue and Bridges felt Romney looks at the big picture.
Mr. ANDY BRIDGES (Resident, Bedford, New Hampshire): The ability to look at the threat and see how extensive it is. So that was one thing that really helped.
WERTHEIMER: For several people in this crowd however, the stand out was Senator John McCain, even though he had to spend a good amount of time defending his version of immigration reform against attacks from the others. For Joan Miller, it was deja vu.
Ms. JOAN MILLER (Resident, Bedford, New Hampshire): I was impressed by McCain. He would have been third of the three, for me, at the start of this. But now, I'm remembering how much I liked him eight years ago.
WERTHEIMER: The group was moved when McCain stepped to the front of the stage to speak to the sister of a soldier killed in Iraq and came close to apologizing.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; 2008 Presidential Candidate): I'm going to give you a little straight talk. This war was very badly mismanaged for a long time and Americans have made great sacrifices, some of which were unnecessary because of this management of the - mismanagement of this conflict.
WERTHEIMER: Several other candidates were surprisingly critical of the president. Congressman Tom Tancredo says he's been so negative in the past that presidential aide Karl Rove called to tell him never to darken the door of the White House again. Last night, Tancredo said he would say the same thing to President Bush.
Watching the candidates speak ill of another Republican did not bother Randy Snider who asked, what choice do they have?
Mr. SNIDER: At a 29 percent approval rating, they have no choice but to distance themselves from Bush - with the possible exception of the hard stands on the war. And I think they've all, sort of, carved out a pretty good position there.
WERTHEIMER: But when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked the candidates to identify George Bush's worst mistake, that was over the line for John Kingman(ph) and Joan Miller.
Mr. JOHN KINGMAN (Resident, Bedford, New Hampshire): And I thought that was an inane question, so my opinion of Wolf Blitzer went down the toilet tonight. But that's his job, to create controversy.
Ms. MILLER: George W. Bush is our sitting president. He deserves our respect as long as he is our sitting president.
WERTHEIMER: Our group did not want to hear about the candidates' religious views - inappropriate, one said - or their views on abortion. But John Kingman and Dave Wright(ph) are fiscal conservatives. They wanted more on the economy.
Mr. KINGMAN: Spending, out of control spending in Washington - we've got to get a handle of it. Bush has vetoed nearly no spending bills whatsoever. We've got to have accountability for spending.
Mr. DAVE WRIGHT (Resident, Bedford, New Hampshire): I was going to add the same thing and I thought that they should have spent considerably more time on questions about economics and the economy. I didn't think they spent nearly enough time on that.
WERTHEIMER: This group of Republicans wants to find a candidate to support, even Carolyn Keith(ph), who says she's considered voting Democratic.
Ms. CAROLYN KEITH (Resident, Bedford, New Hampshire): I've been a registered Republican all my life until the last election. And I changed to register independent. I've had a real problem with the administration in many ways. And I would like to see a reason to register Republican again.
WERTHEIMER: Can the Republicans win in 2008? It's uphill, but possible, Carolyn Keith said. It all depends on who the Democrats nominate.
Linda Wertheimer, NPR News, Manchester, New Hampshire.
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