GOP Presidential Debate Somber

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The Republican presidential candidates faced off for the final time in Iowa before the state's influential caucuses next month. The candidates were subdued and positive during the debate, despite the highly contentious race.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

Republican candidates yesterday faced off for the last time before the Iowa caucuses. It was in a debate sponsored by the Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Television. And perhaps in a nod to Midwestern sensitivities, the candidates seemed as subdued and positive in person as their campaigns have been fierce and negative outside the debate hall.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson has that story.

MARA LIASSON: Maybe the candidates pulled their punches because the stakes were so high or because they know that negative attacks particularly delivered in person can offend Iowa voters. People here called the standard Iowa nice. So this is what passed for fireworks between Mitt Romney and then Fred Thompson when the candidates were asked who pays more than their fare share of taxes, the rich, the poor, or the middle class?

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Massachusetts Governor, Republican; Presidential Candidate): I'll stay awake at night worrying about the taxes that rich people are paying, to tell you the truth. We need to reduce the burden on middle-income families in this country.

Ms. CAROLYN WASHBURN (Editor, The Des Moines Register): Okay. A little snappier, gentlemen. Senator Thompson?

Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Former Tennessee Senator, Republican; Presidential Candidate): My goal is to get...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: My goal is to get into Mitt Romney's situation where I don't have to worry about taxes anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: But...

Mr. ROMNEY: (Unintelligible) at your situation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, (unintelligible) you know, you're going to be a pretty good actor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIASSON: The candidates were also asked about education, an issue high on the list of voters concerns but usually ignored in debates. Mike Huckabee said he'd encouraged music and art in every school and he touted his education record in Arkansas.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Arkansas Governor, Republican; Presidential Candidate): I was a governor 10 and a half years. I had executive experience longer than anyone on this stage running for government. And I had also the most, I think, impressive education record.

LIASSON: Huckabee's surprising surge in Iowa has knocked frontrunner Mitt Romney off his perch, even after the former Massachusetts governor spent many months and millions of dollars in the state. So, all eyes were on the two of them yesterday, but Romney's response was restrained.

Mr. ROMNEY: Just wanting a small adjustment to what Governor Huckabee had to say and I don't believe you had the finest record of any governor in America in education.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROMNEY: And the kids in our state, as I indicated, scored number one in all four measures on the national exams.

LIASSON: The candidates were asked what they'd want to accomplish in their first year in office, Romney had a lot he wanted to do.

Mr. ROMNEY: First of all, I want to establish a strategy to help us overwhelm global jihad and keep the world safe. I want to end illegal immigration, we can get that done. I want to end the growth - the expansion growth of entitlements rein them in. I want to end the extraordinary growth in federal spending. And I want to keep...

LIASSON: Then, it was Huckabee's turn. And he gave an answer that could've been delivered by Barack Obama.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Oh, I like the (unintelligible) and I would agree that everyone of those things is important. Reality is known, that's going to happen until we bring this country back together. I think the first priority of the next president is to be a president of all the United States. We are, right now, a very polarized country, and that polarized country is led to a paralyzed government. We've got Democrats who fight Republicans, liberals fighting conservatives, the left fights the right. Who's fighting for this country again? And somehow, we've got to quit even fighting among ourselves as conservatives and as Republicans and...

LIASSON: Huckabee might've been referring to the attacks coming his way, in particular, from Mitt Romney who's aired the first TV ad of the cycle that attacks an opponent, in this case Huckabee, by name. The discussion also touched on character. Rudy Giuliani was asked about how as mayor of New York he handled security and travel expenses for his then girlfriend and how transparent a Giuliani White House might be?

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former New York City Mayor, Republican; Presidential Candidate): The reality is that all that information was available and known to people, known six years ago. And I would have make sure that government was transparent. My government in New York City was so transparent that they knew every single thing I did almost every time I did it. So I would be extremely...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIULIANI: ...I would be extremely open. I'm used to it. I'm used to being analyzed. I'd - haven't had a perfect life, I wish I had. And I do the best that I can to learn from my mistakes.

LIASSON: This year, the Iowa caucuses are on January 3rd, just two days after New Year's. So the moderator, Des Moines Register editor Carolyn Washburn, asked the candidates to make a New Year's resolution for one of their opponents. Here's Huckabee's.

Mr. HUCKABEE: I'm going to be a lot more careful about everything I say because I find that it gets amplified to a new level so that's my resolution.

Ms. WASHBURN: This is not a resolution for an opponent.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Well, I would make it of them too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIASSON: Huckabee was referring to a quote in an upcoming New York Times Sunday magazine profile where he asks the reporter, don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers? After the debate, Huckabee, who is an ordained Baptist minister, said he had personally apologized to Romney for the remarks.

The debate yesterday did little to change the shape of the Republican race in Iowa. It's still an extreme flux with just 21 days to go.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Des Moines.

MONTAGNE: And if you'd like to hear more about yesterday's debate, you can download special coverage of the Republican debate at

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Republicans Debate Education, Economy in Iowa

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Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks during the Iowa debate.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks during the debate. Andrea Melendez/Getty hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Melendez/Getty

The economy and education were the dominant topics when Republican presidential candidates met Wednesday for a debate in Iowa.

It's the last time Iowa voters get to see the candidates on one stage before the nation's first caucuses in a little more than three weeks.

Immigration barely came up in the debate, even though it is a hot topic in Iowa and the focus of a new television advertisement that pits Mitt Romney against Mike Huckabee.

Romney has lost his lead in Iowa polls to Huckabee, who has become the darling of the state's social conservatives.

Romney was asked whether it is more important for a candidate to be a social conservative or a fiscal conservative — and he promised to be both.

Candidates Seek to Unify Country

"We're not going to get the White House nor strengthen America unless we can pull together the coalition of conservatives and conservative thought that has made us successful as a party," Romney said. "That's social conservatives; it's economic conservatives and also foreign policy and defense conservatives."

Huckabee — who might have been the target of criticism by virtue of his new front-runner status — responded with a call for coalition-building.

"I think the first priority of the next president is to be a president of all the United States. We are, right now, a polarized country, and that polarized country has led to a paralyzed government," Huckabee said.

Huckabee breaks from some of the other Republicans in the field by blending economic populism with his conservative stance on social issues. Although most Republicans are wary of taxes, Huckabee wants to scrap the income tax altogether in favor of a national consumption tax which he calls the "fair tax."

"That means the rich people aren't going to be made poor, but maybe the poor people will be made rich. That ought to be the goal of any tax system — not to punish somebody but to enable somebody, so they can have a part of the American dream," Huckabee said.

Romney, for his part, has proposed tax cuts on savings and investments for families making less than $200,000.

"I don't stay awake at night worrying about the taxes that rich people are paying. I'm concerned about the taxes that middle-class families are paying," Romney said.

That drew one of the biggest laugh lines of the debate from former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.

"My goal is to get into Mitt Romney's situation where I don't have to worry about taxes anymore," Thompson said.

McCain Discusses Trade

Talk turned next to trade, which is a sensitive subject in Iowa. The state is a major exporter, with one in five jobs tied to foreign trade. But Iowa has also lost high paying manufacturing jobs, and many people are suspicious that free trade is good for the economy.

Arizona Sen. John McCain pledged to champion Iowa products in markets worldwide, but he also risked the wrath of Iowa farm interests by speaking out against ethanol subsidies and tariffs that restrict free trade.

"I don't believe anybody can stand here and say they're a fiscal conservative and, yet, support subsidies which distort markets and destroy our ability to compete in the world," he said.

Candidates were also asked about education — a topic that moderator Carolyn Washburn of The Des Moines Register said had not gotten enough attention during the presidential campaign.

Thompson blamed teachers' unions for resisting reforms. And former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said parents should have the freedom to pick their children's school.

"I'm here because of the educational choices my parents made. I wouldn't be here or have achieved anything that I've achieved, and that's the place where the decisions should be made," Giuliani said.

There were almost no questions about immigration. Although the topic is important with Iowa voters, Washburn said they already know where the candidates stand.

Front-runner Huckabee on Tuesday won the endorsement of anti-immigration activist Jim Gilchrist, but he was still grilled by Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, an immigration hawk, about his record on the subject.

"How are you going to convince America that you have changed your mind on immigration from when you were a governor?" Tancredo asked.

As Arkansas governor, Huckabee backed in-state college tuition fees and scholarships for the children of illegal immigrants.

Huckabee said his New Year's resolution will be to be a lot more careful about everything he says.



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