In a second debate among Republican presidential contenders, candidates focused less on platitudes and more on the issues Tuesday night than they did in an initial debate two weeks ago.
Unlike the GOP affair two weeks before, in Simi Valley, California – when debate host Chris Matthews of MSNBC continually interrupted the candidates or became the story himself – there were moments where clear differences between the hopefuls were apparent. Hosted by the Fox News Channel, and moderated by Fox's Brit Hume, Chris Wallace and Wendell Goler, the journalists stayed out of the picture, asked sensible questions and gave the candidates amble time to answer them. The initial reaction was thus:
Rudy Giuliani, whose conflicting and confusing answers two weeks ago about abortion seemingly put him on the defensive, came off as better prepared this time, with crisper responses. He was clearer in expressing his personal view that while he doesn't like abortion, he strongly supports a woman's right to make that decision – the only Republican in the field to do so in a historically pro-life party. He stressed his eight-year record as mayor of New York (1994-2001), where he pushed for adoption over abortion.
John McCain also vastly improved his fortunes from the first debate. His nervous performance in California gave way to a more mature, serious and confident presentation Tuesday night.
The third candidate of the so-called GOP top tier, Mitt Romney, didn't make any gaffes or hurt his cause. He was, once again, smooth and confident. But his answers seemed a bit programmed, and he still has problems with accusations that he has changed his position to suit his audience – a much different audience than when he ran for the Senate in Massachusetts against Edward Kennedy in 1994, or when he was elected governor in 2002.
The remaining seven – Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Ron Paul of Texas and Duncan Hunter of California, and former Govs. Jim Gilmore of Virginia, Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin — all fought to break through and be taken seriously.
On the issue of Iraq, once again nearly all of the candidates supported giving President Bush's plan more time to work except for Paul, one of just six House Republicans who voted against the war in 2002. Asked if perhaps he was running in the wrong party, Paul – who briefly bolted the GOP to become the Libertarian Party's nominee for president in 1988 – said it was the Republican Party that had lost its way. He said that Iraq is the reason why the Democrats now control Congress.
A bigger issue for the GOP field seemed to be whether each of them had always adhered to conservative principles. In many cases, the questions were more effective than the answers. Fox's Wendell Goler referred to Romney's nickname of "Flip Flop Mitt," and asked if his pledge not to raise taxes wasn't a "blatant appeal" for votes. Romney defended his record as governor of Massachusetts as one of cutting waste and trimming the budget.
McCain was reminded that he now supports the Bush tax cuts when he once opposed them. The Arizona senator said that he objected to the cuts when there was no corresponding cut in spending, which he said was "out of control." He said the Republicans lost the 2006 midterm elections not because of Iraq but because of the spending. He said Congress was spending money like a drunken sailor, and then added he had gotten a note from a drunken sailor resenting his comparing him to Congress. It was a line he also used in the first debate, but it was delivered better this time and it got a good response from the audience.
A funnier line came from Huckabee, who complained, "We've had a Congress that's spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop," mocking the Democratic hopeful's reported $400 haircut.
And Giuliani was reminded that spending was way up when he was mayor of New York City. Giuliani insisted that spending actually decreased in the city, that he lowered taxes 23 times, and that he instituted "Reagan-like" budget cuts.
Ronald Reagan, of course, was well-known for his "11th Commandment:" Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of a Fellow Republican. That didn't keep Gilmore from attacking both Giuliani for his abortion position and Huckabee for raising taxes while governor of Arkansas.
Allowed to respond, Huckabee acknowledged that he raised gasoline taxes to build roads and help his state's education system, which he refused to apologize for. He also said he cut taxes 94 times.
Giuliani acknowledged he was pro-choice but that the party should do whatever it could to reduce the number of abortions performed in the country. Yes, he repeated from the first debate, he personally hates abortion. But, he said, "There are people, millions and millions of Americans, who are of good conscience as we are, who make a different choice about abortion. And I think in a country where you want to keep government out of people's lives ... you have to respect that."
That led Huckabee to say that while he had "great respect for the mayor," he didn't understand how anyone could hate abortion but still allow it to continue. "If something is morally wrong, let's oppose it," Huckabee said. "If it's wrong, then we ought to be opposed to it, and we ought to find ways to find better ways to deal with our respect for human life."
No one seemed to have a stronger viewpoint against abortion than Brownback, who opposes the procedure in every instance except to save the mother's life. That includes rape and incest. Brownback passionately argued that while rape and incest are terrible tragedies, taking a life – abortion – would be worse.
The Fox moderators introduced a fictitious scenario, in which terrorists have attacked several shopping centers, resulting in hundreds of deaths. But some of the terrorists were captured, apparently with information about another attack. How aggressively do you interrogate them, the candidates were asked.
It gave McCain another opportunity to repeat his opposition to torture, a cause he championed in the Senate. As someone who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain said that the U.S. would lose far more from torturing prisoners than it would gain, he said. He asserted that those who have served in the military – as opposed to those who had not – tend to agree with him. His opposition to torture included the process of water-boarding, a technique McCain said began during the Spanish Inquisition.
Other candidates, while not endorsing torture, refused to rule out water-boarding. Tancredo was most succinct. "I'm looking for Jack Bauer at this point," he said, referring to the character on the popular Fox TV show "24" known for showing unorthodox interrogation methods.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the night came when Paul claimed that the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, happened because of U.S. policies in the Mideast. "They attack us because we've been over there. We've been bombing Iraq for 10 years," Paul said.
That was too much for Giuliani, the mayor of New York on September 11, who has been using national security as his hallmark issue. "That's really an extraordinary statement," Giuliani interrupted, seemingly stunned. "As someone who lived through the attack on Sept. 11, that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. ... I don't think I've ever heard that before and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11." He demanded that Paul withdraw his statement, but Paul refused.
The issue of candidate flip-flops stayed constant throughout the 90-minute debate. One memorable back-and-forth occurred between Romney and McCain. Romney suggested that McCain's support for a guest-worker program in his immigration package amounted to "amnesty," and that he feared McCain would do to immigration what he had done to campaign finance with the McCain-Feingold bill. Defending his position on both issues, and getting in a dig at Romney at the same time, McCain said, "I haven't changed my position" because of the "different offices that I may be running for."
The flip-flop issue was perhaps best summed up by Tancredo. "It's beginning to truly sound like a Baptist tent revival meeting here," he said. "And I am glad to see conversions. I'm glad they happen. But I must tell you, I trust those conversions when they happen on the road to Damascus, and not on the road to Des Moines" – a reference to Iowa, the nation's first caucus state, now less than eight months away.