NPR Special Coverage of the GOP Presidential Candidates' Debate (Dec. 12)
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani speaks during the debate.
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.