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Republicans Come Out Swinging at Debate

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Republicans Come Out Swinging at Debate

Election 2008

Republicans Come Out Swinging at Debate

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

The Republican presidential candidates were together again last night for another debate. It was hosted by the FOX News Channel in Orlando, Florida.

NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving was watching, and he's here now as he is every Monday. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING: Good to be with you, Madeleine.

BRAND: Before we get to the debate, there were a few developments in the Republican presidential field over the past few days. We're down one.

ELVING: Yes. Senator Sam Brownback, the junior senator from Kansas, decided that he wasn't really getting his message across. And of course it was never quite clear why he wasn't finding an audience, given that he is a strong social conservative, economic conservative, national security conservative. There just wasn't enough of a connection.

BRAND: Hmm. Well, it seems social conservatives heart Huckabee - they heart someone else now. I just had to get that in.

ELVING: Oh, that's excellent. The Values Voters Summit was held here in Washington, D.C. over the weekend. This was sponsored by the Family Research Council, and they had a straw poll. And interestingly, while Mitt Romney won the straw poll with just a fraction over 27 percent, he was virtually tied by Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, a former Baptist preacher, and certainly a favorite of many social religious conservatives.

Surprisingly, Ron Paul finished third, the libertarian conservative Republican. And then you had Fred Thompson in kind of a distant fourth. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani were virtually invisible - not too surprising. They're not terribly popular among these particular voters. But here's an interesting point. Among those who voted at the event, in other words, who came and heard all the candidates - and all of the major candidates came - among those, Mike Huckabee won overwhelmingly, won over half the vote. The vote was also conducted online and that helped Mitt Romney, whose supporters were voting online.

BRAND: Okay. Let's get to that debate. Now, here's how FOX News Channel's Brit Hume welcomed viewers.

Mr. BRIT HUME (FOX News): Welcome to Orlando in the heart of central Florida. Tonight we're inside the Shingle Creek Resort, where we've turned a huge convention hall into an intimate debate stage for eight candidates and an audience of more than 3,000 people who, you'll soon notice, are raring for a lively debate.

(Soundbite of cheering)

BRAND: Ron, well, did they get that lively debate? It sure seemed like they did.

ELVING: Yes, indeed. It was feeding time for the carnivores. Who's the most conservative, they asked over and over. And literally, the FOX panel - it was an all-FOX panel - would ask the question, are you more conservative than Fred and is Fred more conservative than John? One of the ways that they showed they were more conservative was to see who could beat up the most on Hillary Clinton, whom they all assumed will be the Democratic nominee. And many of the questions from the FOX panel were specifically about whether or not these candidates agreed with Hillary Clinton about one thing or another, and of course they immediately said, oh, no, no, no, we're very different.

BRAND: Hmm. And I think she was mentioned dozens of times in that debate. Let's hear a clip.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Republican Presidential Candidate): You know, it's interesting, the most, I guess, wonderful reaction we've had in this entire room is when Hillary's name is mentioned. It gets louder than an Aerosmith concert.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUCKABEE: But I want to say this, you've asked what's the difference. And no matter which one of us is on this stage - and look, I like to be funny. Let me realize with you. There's nothing funny about Hillary Clinton being president.

BRAND: Well, Ron, could this end up backfiring for them? I mean, it surely seems to be that they are worried about Hillary Clinton. Doesn't it make her appear even stronger?

ELVING: In the same way that Fred Thompson looked good in this debate because so many people on the panel were asking, are you more conservative than Fred Thompson, in that same sense that it's good to be held up as a comparison point, I would think that a lot of voters who hadn't already made up their mind about the final choice in the general election would have listened to this debate and thought, who is this Hillary Clinton person that these guys are so afraid of or excited about or disturbed about? They kept talking about how scary she was. So I guess you would have to say that for some people there's going to be a backlash, particularly perhaps women voters, perhaps people who are just wondering what it is about Hillary Clinton that all of these Republicans find so overwhelming, so daunting.

BRAND: Ron, let's talk about this crazy primary schedule now. We are about, what, 73 days until the Iowa caucuses. And we just heard today that the Republicans may penalize some states from moving their primaries up. What's going on here?

ELVING: Madeleine, the Republican Party is following the Democratic Party in punishing the leapfrogging states, the ones that couldn't stand it any longer to have Iowa and New Hampshire out there by themselves getting all the attention. So we're talking here about Florida and Michigan and Wyoming jumping into January. The Democrats are already moving to punish those states and also now the Republicans are doing so. They have said that they are going to take away half the delegate seats at the convention for those states that are voting in January, which the Republicans have tried to ban across the board; that includes New Hampshire, Florida, South Carolina, Michigan and Wyoming. But not Iowa, because Iowa holds a caucus, not a primary.

BRAND: So how many delegates would be left at the convention then?

ELVING: Well, those are relatively small states, except for Florida. It's not going to be a huge gap. And in my estimation, the odds are whoever gets the Republican nomination will grant a one time amnesty and welcome all the delegates back from all of these states and I think the Democrats will do something similar.

BRAND: You heard it here first. NPR's Ron Elving, thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.

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