With Iowa and New Hampshire in their wake, the Republican presidential candidates squared off at a debate in South Carolina on Thursday, largely minding their manners as they discussed the economy, foreign policy and the political legacy of Ronald Reagan.
Since South Carolina began holding primaries in 1980, no GOP candidate has won his party's nomination without carrying the state.
The state is also where former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson hopes to finally make his mark, after finishing well behind the leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire. Thompson came out swinging last night against his fellow southerner, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
"He would be a Christian leader, but he would also bring about liberal economic policies and liberal foreign policies," Thompson said of Huckabee. "He believes we have an arrogant foreign policy in the tradition of 'blame America first.' That's not the model of the Reagan coalition. That's the model of the Democratic party."
Huckabee, who won Iowa with the help of evangelical voters, hopes to do well in South Carolina, too. He took the criticism as a sign of success.
"The Air Force has a saying that if you're not catching flak, you're not over the target. I'm catching flak. I must be over the target," he said.
Huckabee insists he does believe in the so-called Reagan coalition of social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and defense hawks. But more than the other Republicans in the race, Huckabee offers a populist appeal to blue-collar voters, many of whom are nervous about the state of the economy.
"We need to communicate that our party is just as interested in helping the people who are single moms, who are working two jobs and still just barely paying the rent, as we are the people at the top of the economy," Huckabee said.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is hoping to build on his New Hampshire victory, passed up an invitation to criticize Huckabee. He sparred, however, with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney over the "change-versus-experience" issue that has come to characterize the Democratic presidential race as well. Romney — who paints himself as a turnaround specialist — said even though McCain's experience carried New Hampshire, voters are still anxious for something different.
"I know how to bring change. And I will change Washington," Romney said. "I will take it apart and put it back together, simpler, smaller, smarter."
McCain insists he is also an agent of change, despite 26 years in Congress.
"I've been one of those involved in one of the most important changes we could ever have made, and that is reversing a losing strategy in Iraq," he said. He was a vocal critic of the administration's early war strategy in Iraq and a strong supporter of the military surge, which marked its first anniversary on Thursday.
Most of the candidates defended the U.S. Navy for showing restraint over the weekend when confronted by aggressive Iranian speedboats in the Strait of Hormuz. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said the incident is a reminder that Iran is still a threat, despite intelligence findings that the country has halted work on its nuclear program. Thompson said the naval encounter might easily have escalated.
"I think one more step and they would have been introduced to those virgins that they're looking forward to seeing," Thompson joked.
That kind of bravado alarmed Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Paul's campaign sent a blimp with a campaign ad over the debate hall last night. The maverick candidate also enjoyed a cheering section inside. Paul likened the incident to the Gulf of Tonkin engagement that was used as a justification for expanded military action in Vietnam.
"Let's put it into perspective. We have five small speedboats attacking the U.S. Navy with a destroyer. They could take care of those speedboats in about five seconds. And here we're ready to start World War III over this?" Paul asked.
Most polls show either Huckabee or McCain leading in South Carolina. But Huckabee was asked how well he might compete outside the Bible Belt. As an ordained minister, Huckabee signed on to a controversial 1998 newspaper ad praising the Southern Baptist Convention for its policy saying a wife should "submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ."
"You know it's interesting," Huckabee replied. "Everyone says religion is off-limits. Except we always can ask me the religious question."
Huckabee offered some biblical context for the ad and said anyone who has met his wife, Janet, knows she is anything but submissive. He also joked that if the debate is going to dwell on church matters, he would like to pass a collection plate, because his fledgling campaign is sorely in need of money.