GOP Presidential Candidates Push Iraq Agenda GOP presidential candidates struggle with what to say about President Bush during their debate in Iowa in light of the war in Iraq. The nine Republicans officially running for their party's presidential nomination gathered in Des Moines for a debate sponsored by ABC News.

GOP Presidential Candidates Push Iraq Agenda

GOP Presidential Candidates Push Iraq Agenda

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GOP presidential candidates struggle with what to say about President Bush during their debate in Iowa in light of the war in Iraq. The nine Republicans officially running for their party's presidential nomination gathered in Des Moines for a debate sponsored by ABC News.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

Here's a headline from yesterday's Des Moines Register: GOP debate, challenge what to say about Bush. It's a question the candidates seemed to be asking themselves. The nine Republican officially running for their party's presidential nomination gathered in Iowa yesterday morning for a debate sponsored by ABC News. And indeed they spent a lot of time navigating the subject of George W. Bush, as NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE: Few of the candidates on stage yesterday openly praised President Bush. In fact, this was one of the highest compliments for the president.

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Mayor of New York; Republican Presidential Nominee): I'm real clear on the fact that George W. Bush is the president of the United States.

GREENE: That was former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He felt the need to make clear who's president because he'd been asked whether Mr. Bush has given Vice President Dick Cheney too much of the power.

Arizona Senator John McCain was also asked about the vice president's role.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Nominee): Having been considered for that post several times, I've thought a lot about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. MCCAIN: The vice president really only has two duties. One is to cast a tiebreaking vote in the case of a tie vote in the Senate, and the other is to inquire daily as to health of the president.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: If he were president, McCain said he would find a few areas of expertise for the vice president to focus on, something like telecommunications.

Sen. MCCAIN: I would be very careful that everybody understood that there's only one president.

GREENE: Kansas Senator Sam Brownback was more direct in his answers, saying Mr. Bush ceded too much authority to Cheney.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas; Republican Presidential Nominee): He came in with a lot of experience on defense, foreign policy issues, and I think the president over-relied on that.

GREENE: And maybe Mr. Bush wouldn't have relied so much on Cheney, Brownback said, if the former Texas governor had come to the White House more seasoned.

Sen. BROWNBACK: I think he needs somebody coming into the presidency that's had foreign policy experience, that's worked on these national and global issues so that they don't have to depend on the vice president as much.

GREENE: Each of the candidates, like former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, measured themselves at arms length from the president.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Governor of Massachusetts; Republican Presidential Nominee): I don't know what president - all the things President Bush has done, but I can tell you I'm not a carbon copy of president Bush, and there are things I would do that would be done differently.

GREENE: But how different Romney or his main rivals would be on specific issues was not so clear. The candidates don't seem to want to identify with Mr. Bush's administration. But only long-shot candidate Ron Paul expressed a clearly different philosophy. When asked about specific issues, the other candidates sound a lot like the president. Here's Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo on health care.

Representative TOM TANCREDO (Republican, Colorado; Republican Presidential Nominee): The government - it's not the responsibility of the federal government to provide womb to tomb health care for America.

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: President Bush may not have chosen those exact words, but limiting the government's role in health care would be carrying on President Bush's legacy.

On abortion, Mitt Romney a decade ago took a pro-choice position. But as he made clear yesterday, he's changed his thinking.

Mr. ROMNEY: I'm pro-life. My positions are pro-life. The idea that, for instance, I've been in favor of taxpayer funding of abortion, that's wrong. I oppose taxpayer funding of abortion.

GREENE: And that position, too, would be in line with President Bush. And this issue came up yesterday.

Ms. JILL HUDKER(ph): Hi, I'm Jill Hudker from Grinnell, Iowa. My question is: If you were president, what would be your strategy for ending the war in Iraq?

GREENE: Jill Hudker sent in a tape of her question on Iraq. Congressman Duncan Hunter of California said his strategy is to give the president's strategy more time.

Representative DUNCAN HUNTER (Republican, California; Republican Presidential Nominee): And you know something, the Marines in Anbar province, which is almost half of Iraq, have turned that situation around. They brought the communities there on our side, fighting back against al-Qaida. Not a single Democrat…

(Soundbite of applause)

GREENE: Senator McCain was asked if he's ready to break with the president's policy, since the Iraqi government is failing to control of the country.

Unidentified Man: If they fail to meet these benchmarks which are written into the law, will you still continue to support the surge?

Sen. MCCAIN: Of course. They are making progress and we are winning on the ground.

GREENE: Mayor Giuliani said he sees progress, too.

Mr. GIULIANI: Now why would we want to retreat in the face of at least some empirical evidence that General Petraeus (unintelligible)?

Unidentified Man: But that's military progress, no political progress. You'd continue to support the surge even if there's no political progress?

Mr. GIULIANI: The reality is that if we can bring stability to Iraq and we can give them a chance to develop stability, that's what we should be trying to accomplish.

GREENE: And those words could just as easily have come from the president's mouth.

David Greene. NPR News, Des Moines.

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