GOP Candidates Take Aim at Each Other

The Republican presidential candidates' debate in Orlando, Fla., becomes a brawl as they take aim at each other. All are competing to be seen as the heir to President Ronald Reagan's legacy. But in a crowded field, few are willing to follow Reagan's mantra not to attack other Republicans.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When eight Republican presidential candidates met last night, they took aim at each other. All are competing to be seen as the heir to President Ronald Reagan, but in a crowded field, few are willing or able to follow Reagan's 11th commandment which was not to attack other Republicans.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson was at the debate.

MARA LIASSON: Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson had the most to prove last night. On Saturday, he disappointed Florida Republicans when he spoke for just five minutes at a state party rally after his rivals said each given fired-up speeches that lasted much longer.

But last night, Thompson was more aggressive. Launching an attack on Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani after FOX News moderator Chris Wallace asked him the question that the Republican candidates had been sparring over for weeks: Who is the real conservative in race?

Senator FRED THOMPSON (Republican, Tennessee): Mayor Giuliani believes in federal funding for abortion. He believes in sanctuary cities. He's for gun control. He supported Mario Cuomo, a Liberal Democrat, against a Republican who's running for governor; then opposed the governor's tax cuts when he was there. So I just simply disagree with him on those issues, and he sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues I just mentioned.

Mr. CHRIS WALLACE (Moderator, FOX News): Mayor Giuliani?

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Republican, Former Mayor, New York): Well, look…

Hillary Clinton on each of those issues I just mentioned.

Mr. WALLACE: How would you respond to Senator Thompson?

Mr. GIULIANI: You know, Fred has his problems too. I mean, Fred…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIULIANI: Fred was the single biggest obstacle to tort reform in the United States Senate. He stood with Democrats over and over again. The senator has never had executive responsibility. He's never had the weight of people's safety and security on his shoulders. I have.

LIASSON: That little fistfight turned into a brawl when Arizona Senator John McCain joined in. He took aim at Giuliani, and more pointedly, at former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Governor Romney, you've been spending the last year trying to fool people about your record. You can't - I don't want you to start fooling them about mine. I wasn't a mayor for a short period of time. I wasn't a governor for a short period of time. For 20 some year, including leading the largest squadron in the United States Navy, I led. I didn't manage for profit, I led for patriotism.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: Romney has been running ahead of some of the early states but trailing Giuliani and Thompson in national polls. Has he has on the campaign trail, last night Romney attacked his rivals for having too much in common with the Democrat Republicans assumed they will face next year.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican, Former Governor, Massachusetts): And my view, we're going to have to bring together the same coalition that Ronald Reagan put together. Conservatives fiscally, conservatives from a military standpoint and conservatives socially, because we're not going to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House by acting like Hillary Clinton.

LIASSON: Just as Democrats love to attack President Bush, the Republican candidates were at their most passionate when they were attacking Hillary Clinton.

Here's John McCain.

Sen. McCAIN: In case you missed it, a few days ago, Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock concert museum.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. McCAIN: Now my friends, I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. McCAIN: I was tied up at the time. But the fact is…

(Soundbite of cheering)

LIASSON: That reference to McCain's years as a POW in Vietnam got a prolonged standing ovation.

Sen. McCAIN: But my friends, no one can be president of the United States that supports projects such as these.

LIASSON: McCain was followed by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee who pointed out that whenever Clinton's name was mentioned the crowd got louder than an Aerosmith concert.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Republican, Former Governor, Arkansas): Look, I like to be funny. Let me be real with you. There's nothing funny about Hillary Clinton being president. Let me tell you why.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. HUCKABEE: If she's president, taxes go up, health care becomes the domain of the government, spending goes out of control, our military loses its morale, and I'm not sure we'll have the courage and the will and the resolve to fight the greatest threat this country's ever faced in Islamo-fascism. We've got…

LIASSON: With less than 10 weeks to go before the voting begins, the Republican race is still without a clear frontrunner. There are five strong candidates competing for that spot: Giuliani, Romney, Thompson, McCain, and now Huckabee, who hasn't raised much money but is showing surprising strength among social conservatives. He came in second in a straw poll this weekend at the Values Voters Summit and he's running third in several Iowa polls.

Many Republicans are depressed about their prospects in 2008, and they desperately want a candidate who can win against Hillary Clinton, who, polls show, beats each of them in a hypothetical general election. But before any of the Republicans get a chance to run against any Democrat, they have to figure out how to get past each other.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Orlando, Florida.

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