GOP Presidential Candidates Hold First Debate The 10 declared Republican presidential candidates crowded the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., for their first debate. Questions covered Iraq, policy on Iran, immigration and abortion.
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GOP Presidential Candidates Hold First Debate

GOP Presidential Candidates Hold First Debate

Hear Ina Jaffe's 'Morning Edition' Report on the Debate

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The 10 declared Republican presidential candidates crowded the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., for their first debate. Questions covered Iraq, policy on Iran, immigration and abortion.


There is plenty of dialogue about Iraq in the American presidential campaign. Last week, the Democrats who would be president faced off in a televised forum. And last night it was the Republican candidates' turn, all 10 of them: Frontrunners Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, Senator John McCain, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney were joined by seven other candidates.

They were all speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, and the location tells you something about the president that they say they want to emulate.

NPR's Ina Jaffe was there and filed this report.

INA JAFFE: The lead topic was the same one that's uppermost in the minds of most voters now - the war in Iraq. Senator John McCain said the Bush administration horribly mismanaged the war but that the surge in American troops there must be given a chance to work. Looking quite angry, he condemned Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid for saying the war was lost.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): And if we lost, then who won? Did al-Qaida win? When on the floor of the House of Representatives they cheer, they cheer when they pass a withdrawal motion that has a certain date for surrender, what were they cheering? Surrender? Defeat? We must win in Iraq.

JAFFE: If Iraq was discussed as the number one challenge facing the country, Iran was a close second. Like many of the candidates, Rudy Giuliani advocated a confrontational approach in dealing with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the possibility of Iran developing nuclear arms.

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Mayor, New York City): Ahmadinejad is clearly irrational. He has to understand it's not an option. He cannot have nuclear weapons.

JAFFE: The moderator, Chris Matthews of MSNBC, then left foreign affairs for a long list of domestic issues: abortion, climate change, health care, gay rights, the role of religion and more. At times the tempo was more like a game show than a debate.

Mr. CHRIS MATTHEWS (Host, "Hardball"): Starting with you, Governor. Would the day that Roe v. Wade is repealed be a good day for America?

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Governor, Massachusetts): Absolutely.

Mr. MATTHEWS: Senator?

Unidentified Man #1: A glorious day of human liberty and freedom.

Mr. MATTHEWS: Governor?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, it was wrongly decided.

Mr. MATTHEWS: Governor?

Unidentified Man #3: Most certainly.

JAFFE: Romney was asked for more detailed explanations of his views on abortion since he seems to have changed his position since he left the Massachusetts State House for the White House campaign trail.

Mr. ROMNEY: Well, I've always been personally pro-life, but for me it was a great question about whether or not government should intrude in that decision. That said, I protect the law as it was, which is effectively a pro-choice position. About two years ago when we were studying cloning in our state, I said, look, we have gone too far; it's a brave new world mentality that Roe v. Wade has given us and I change my mind.

JAFFE: If the so-called second and third-tier candidates were hoping for a breakthrough last night, they'd have to be mostly disappointed. Former Governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Jim Gilmore of Virginia, Congressman Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul, and Senator Brownback did get equal time with the frontrunners, but they had a hard time distinguishing themselves in this rapid-fire format. The ones who did stand out were the ones with a narrower focus. Congressman Duncan Hunter on immigration, for example.

Representative DUNCAN HUNTER (Republican, California): In my town of San Diego we built the border fence. When we built that fence we had a border out of control. We brought down the smuggling of people and narcotics by more than 90 percent.

JAFFE: Then there was Congressman Ron Paul, who ran for president once before on the libertarian ticket and was one of the few Republicans in Congress to vote against the war.

Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): I tried very hard to solve this problem before we went to war by saying, declare war if you want to go to war; go to war, fight it and win it, but don't get into it for political reasons or to enforce U.N. resolutions or pretend the Iraqis were a national threat to us.

JAFFE: All the candidates were asked what they'd do differently than the current president. Mr. Bush was criticized - usually politely - on his handling of the war, homeland security, the economy, and the concentration of power in the federal government. Only Rudy Giuliani defended him without qualification.

Mr. GIULIANI: I think we should remind ourselves - because I remember every day that on September 11, 2001, we thought we were going to be attacked many, many times between then and now. We haven't been. I believe we had a president who made the right decision at the right time on September 20, 2001, to put us on offense against terrorists, and I think we as Republicans should remind people of that.

JAFFE: This was just the first of two GOP candidate forums that will be held here at the Reagan Library. The second will be just one week before California's February 5th primary. Next time, though, only the frontrunners will be invited, whoever they turn out to be.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Simi Valley, California.

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Republicans Hold Debate in Reagan Country

Hear Ina Jaffe's 'Morning Edition' Report on the Debate

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Ten candidates filled the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Thursday night. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Ten candidates filled the stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Thursday night.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

With Nancy Reagan in the front row (escorted by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger), candidates evoked the memory of Ronald Reagan early and often. Jamie Rector/Getty Images hide caption

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Jamie Rector/Getty Images

With Nancy Reagan in the front row (escorted by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger), candidates evoked the memory of Ronald Reagan early and often.

Jamie Rector/Getty Images

Quotes from the Candidates

Sam Brownback

He said his approach in Iraq would differ from President Bush's. "I'd push more a political solution along with a military solution in Iraq, and here I would push a three-state, one-country solution in Iraq, with a Kurdish state, a Sunni state, a Shiite state, with Baghdad as the federal city. I think we've got to push a political solution, along with the military, to get to a stable situation in Iraq, which is our key political issue of the day."

He said Congress was right to intervene in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case. "Yes, it should have. And it gave her the right, and the family the right to take that appeal to the court. That's what the Congress did. And her life is sacred. Even if it's in that difficult moment that she's in at that point in time, that life is sacred, and we should stand for life in all its


Jim Gilmore

"I see this Iraq problem as part of an entire Middle East issue, and it's sort of a fundamental problem that we're going to have an honest conversation with the American people about. We're going to have to engage in the Middle East, and we're going to have to do it for an extended and a long period of time."

Rudy Giuliani

He said it would be acceptable if the Supreme Court upheld Roe v. Wade. He also said, "It would be OK to repeal. It would be OK also if a strict constructionist judge viewed it as precedent, and I think a judge has to make that decision. ... I think the court has to make that decision and then the country can deal with it. We're a federalist system of government and states can make their own decisions."

"The use of military force against Iran would be very dangerous. It would be very provocative. The only thing worse would be Iran being a nuclear power. It's the worst nightmare of the Cold War, isn't it? The nuclear weapons in the hands of an irrational person, an irrational force. (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad is clearly irrational. He has to understand it's not an option; he cannot have nuclear weapons."

Mike Huckabee

He said he would have asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign earlier than Bush did. "I think I would've done that before the election. I certainly wouldn't have said that we are not going to do it and then, right after the election, done so. But that's the president's call. Clearly there was a real error in judgment, and that primarily had to do with listening to a lot of folks who were civilians in suits and silk ties and not listening enough to the generals with mud and blood on their boots and medals on their chest."

"The most important thing a president needs to do is to make it clear that we're not going to continue to see jobs shipped overseas, jobs that are lost by American workers, many in their 50s who, for 20 and 30 years, have worked to make a company rich, and then watch as a CEO takes a $100 million bonus to jettison those American jobs somewhere else. And the worker not only loses his job, but he loses his pension. That's criminal. It's wrong. And if Republicans don't stop it, we don't deserve to win in 2008."

Duncan Hunter

"You know, right now, right now, Iran is moving equipment into Iraq that is being used to kill Americans. Iran has crossed the line, and the United States has absolute license at this point to take whatever actions are necessary to stop those deadly instruments from being moved across the line, being used in explosives, roadside bombs, inside Iraq."

"Right now, the border is 2,000 miles of a very porous area where hundreds of thousands of people come across on an annual basis and where last year we had 155,000 folks who came across from Mexico who were from other countries in the world. Some from communist China, some from Iran, some from Korea. We have to secure the border. That's the biggest failure of the federal government."

John McCain

"When the majority leader of the United States Senate says we've lost the war, the men and women that are serving in Iraq reject that notion. And, if we lost, then who wins? Did al-Qaida win? When on the floor of the House of Representatives they cheer — they cheer — when they pass a withdrawal motion that is a certain date for surrender, what were they cheering? Surrender? Defeat? We must win in Iraq. If we withdraw, there will be chaos; there will be genocide; and they will follow us home."

He said he supports a guest worker program to help deal with illegal immigration. "The status quo is not acceptable. We have to secure our borders. But we also need a temporary worker program, and we have to dispose of the issue of 12 million people who are in this country illegally. This issue is an important and compelling one, and it begins with national security. But we also need to address it comprehensively."

Ron Paul

"The purpose of government is to protect the secrecy and the privacy of all individuals, not the secrecy of government. We don't need a national ID card."

Mitt Romney

"This is a nation, after all, that wants a leader that's a person of faith, but we don't choose our leader based on which church they go to. This is a nation which also comes together — we unite over faith and over the right of people to worship as they choose. The people we're fighting, they're the ones who divide over faith and decide matters of this nature in the public forum. This is a place where we celebrate different religions and different faiths."

"You can fight, for instance, to make sure that partial-birth abortion is made illegal. You can fight to have information given to women who are thinking about having an abortion. You can fight to make sure that there's opportunities for people to express their views on this topic openly and near abortion clinics. You can fight for the opportunity to go out and campaign for the rights of those who care about this issue to be heard before Election Day, and the McCain-Feingold law prevents that from happening."

Tom Tancredo

"There are issues that I believe have not been addressed tonight, not in full, and I believe that they do separate us. And I certainly believe the issue of immigration and immigration reform and what's going to happen to this country unless we deal with this forthrightly — no more platitudes, no more obfuscating with using words like, 'Well, I am not for amnesty, but I am for letting them stay.' That kind of stuff has got to be taken away from the political debate, as far as I'm concerned, so people can understand exactly who is where on this incredibly important issue."

Tommy Thompson

"I think the biggest problem we've got in America is the alternative minimum tax that's bringing more middle-income people in. Let's put it in — let's have the people have a flat tax and have the option of paying whichever is least."

Source: Associated Press

Ten Republican presidential candidates gathered on one stage last night in the first debate of its kind this campaign season.

The candidates — Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Sam Brownback of Kansas, Reps. Duncan Hunter of California, Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Ron Paul of Texas, former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Jim Gilmore of Virginia and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — met at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., with former first Lady Nancy Reagan sitting in the front row.

And it was clear during the 90-minute debate that Ronald Reagan was the Republican president they identified with most. Giuliani said he liked Reagan's "sense of optimism." Romney agreed. In response to a question about Iraq, he said the solution to the situation was leadership, and that Reagan was a "leader of strength." Huckabee celebrated Reagan's "vision."

An Associated Press report of the debate noted that Reagan's name was cited 19 times.

Doubts on Bush

As for the current president, the debaters were less effusive in their praise. McCain said that the current administration had "badly mismanaged the war" in Iraq, and that if he had been in the Oval Office he would have vetoed many of the spending bills that Congress sent to the White House. Hunter faulted Mr. Bush's trade policy. Tancredo went after President Bush on his No Child Left Behind initiative, as well as illegal immigration. Paul said he regretted the loss of privacy for many Americans and said he would never abuse habeas corpus.

When asked what they might do differently, only Giuliani offered mostly positive things about Mr. Bush. Noting his own role as mayor of New York on Sept. 11, 2001, Giuliani praised the president's response to the terrorist attacks, saying that history will judge him positively for his leadership.

Unity on Iraq

There were noticeable differences among the Democratic candidates during their debate last week on Iraq — especially on the issue of a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

But while the Republican candidates offered varying plans on how to achieve victory, only Paul was a determined foe of the conflict; he was one of the few Republican members of Congress to vote against giving the president the authority to go to war in 2002. He noted that 70 percent of Americans want the U.S. out of Iraq, and he called for a non-interventionist, "humble" foreign policy, where Americans should not be in the position to police the world. Paul briefly left the GOP in 1988 and became the Libertarian Party nominee for president.

Most took a hawkish stance on Iran.

The Abortion Question

On other issues, differences were on display. In the past, Romney and Giuliani have gotten themselves into hot water with some in the party over their positions on abortion.

Giuliani clearly and vocally supported abortion rights during his two terms as mayor of New York from 1994-2001.

Romney seemed to favor a woman's right to choose during his unsuccessful run for the Senate in Massachusetts against Democrat Edward Kennedy in 1994 — and later during his winning gubernatorial campaign in 2002.

Asked about this, and his apparently revised position on the issue, Romney said that he had changed his mind. "I was wrong" on issues such as abortion and embryonic stem-cell research, he said. Now, he said, "I am pro-life."

Giuliani's position may be tougher to defend in a decidedly anti-abortion party. He, like Romney, said he has always been "personally" opposed to abortion and that he supports the Hyde Amendment, which barrs federal funds to pay for abortions.

He said he supported pro-choice positions while mayor because it was right for New York City — and that it should be up to the states to decide what their policies should be on the issue. On whether the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that made access to abortion legal should be repealed, Giuliani said, "It would be OK to repeal it. It would be OK also if a strict constructionist [on constitutional issues] viewed it as precedent."

Giuliani said it was ultimately "an issue of conscience" and that he respected "a woman's right to make a different choice."

McCain Breaks Ranks

McCain also broke ranks with his fellow Republicans on some issues.

Acknowledging that embryonic stem-cell research was a "tough issue," he nonetheless said he supports federal funding. And on the issue of congressional involvement in the Terri Schiavo case, McCain said lawmakers "should have taken more time" to deliberate the issue, and that Congress acted "too hastily" in supporting Schiavo's parents' decision to keep the brain-dead woman alive. Giuliani agreed, saying the courts, not Congress, should be the final arbiter.

Answers to questions about stem-cell research were framed by the presence of Nancy Reagan, whose husband suffered through Alzheimer's disease in his later years. Mrs. Reagan has become a vocal supporter of federally funded research.

Divisions on illegal immigration were also on display. Hunter stressed his strong anti-illegal immigration record, talking about his role in building a fence between his San Diego congressional district and Mexico, saying that he worked hard to make an "enforceable border." McCain said that while a secure border was very important, so was what to do with the illegal workers already in the country. McCain favors a more lenient position on these workers than most of his fellow candidates.

Much has been said and written about Romney and his faith. The former governor is a member of the Mormon Church, which is thought to be hurting him among some evangelical Christian voters. Romney was never specifically asked about his own religion, but in a more general discussion he stressed his support for the separation of church and state.

Corruption Questions

When asked about corruption in the Republican Party — specifically convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, imprisoned ex-congressman Duke Cunningham and former Rep. Mark Foley — Brownback acknowledged the seriousness of the cases but reminded listeners that corruption is an equal opportunity issue, obliquely referring to the $90,000 found in the freezer of Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana, a Democrat who remains in office.

Thompson, when asked whether it was fair for an employer to fire someone because he was gay, said it was up to the employer. Thompson formerly served as secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under President Bush.

A Game-Show Feel

If some of the questions were very serious, others were not, and sometimes the debate took on the surreal feel of a game show.

Chris Matthews offered a rat-a-tat volley of questions and fellow moderator John Harris strolled around the stage with queries for the candidates.Often candidates were interrupted by Matthews if they went over their allotted time.

In addition to the more serious questions, the debaters were asked how they felt about possibly having Bill Clinton back in the White House, allowing Hillary Clinton to become the GOP punching bag, and also about potentially changing the Constitution to allow California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was sitting in the front row alongside Nancy Reagan, to become president.

Schwarzenegger is barred from the presidency because he was born outside the U.S., in Austria.

Also during debate, Matthews asked Thompson to respond to a particular point, but then changed his mind and told him he could use the time to repond to anything he wanted.