STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
DEBORAH AMOS, host:
And I'm Deborah Amos in for Renee Montagne.
The trouble in the auto industry helps to explain some numbers from Michigan. Unemployment has been creeping steadily upward. Michigan's number is over seven percent. Those still working face another sign of change this morning.
Workers at Chrysler set a strike deadline as they negotiate over the possibility of a less prosperous future. All this was the backdrop as Republican presidential candidates gathered for a debate that was officially about the economy. It was also the debut for the newest candidate Fred Thompson. And our coverage begins with NPR's Don Gonyea.
DON GONYEA: Most of the talk going into yesterday's debate was about Thompson. Would he have command of the issues? Would his performance inspire confidence in a campaign that's been panned on its first road trips?
Yesterday in Dearborn, he shared the stage with eight other GOP hopefuls. But moderator Maria Bartiromo of the cable business channel CNBC turned to Thompson right off the bat.
Ms. MARIA BARTIROMO (Moderator, GOP Debate; News Anchor, CNBC): Senator Thompson, this is your first debate in the election. We welcome you. And we'll take off with you.
Senator FRED THOMPSON (Republican, Tennessee; Presidential Candidate): Thank you. Thank you.
Ms. BARTIROMO: The economy is America's greatest strength.
GONYEA: She said that in a poll showing that two-thirds of Americans think the U.S. is either in a recession or headed toward one. In response, Thompson was upbeat about the economy, although also a bit rusty in his presentation.
Sen. THOMPSON: We're enjoying a low inflation. We're enjoying low unemployment. The stock market seems to be doing pretty well. I see no reason to believe we're headed for - economic downturn.
GONYEA: After that, Thompson seemed to find his footing, there were no gaffs nor was there a big marquee moment. Basically, he was another contender in the mix of candidates.
To some degree, Thompson was upstaged by sharp exchanges between the other contenders, especially frontrunners Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. For weeks in campaign materials and press releases, Romney has been going after Giuliani as a big spending, big city mayor. Giuliani, yesterday, fired back by citing Romney's record as Massachusetts' governor.
Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Mayor, Republican, New York): The point is that you've got to control taxes. But I did it. He didn't. Under him, taxes went up 11 percent per capita. I led. He lagged.
Unintelligible Male: Sir, a rebuttal here.
Governor MITT ROMNEY (Republican, Massachusetts): It's a nice line, but it's baloney. Mayor, you got to check your facts. No taxes - I did not increase taxes in Massachusetts. I lowered taxes.
GONYEA: Another moment of conflict came when Senator John McCain was asked about a poll that shows the public has more trust in Democrats than Republicans on handling the economy. McCain responded by cataloging the failures of the Bush administration.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Our failure at Katrina, our failures in Iraq, our failures to get spending under control. Now we've got to restore that trust and confidence. The American people want us to stop the outrageous wasteful spending, which has caused our Republican base to become disenchanted and disillusioned. We're going to have to do some - make some tough decisions and make some hard choices.
GONYEA: While most of the questions yesterday dealt with the economy, national security issues arose as well. On the threat posed by Iran, MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked Romney if, as president, he would need to go to Congress to get authorization to take military action against Iran's nuclear facilities? Romney answered…
Gov. ROMNEY: You sit down with your attorneys and tell you what you have to do. But, obviously, the president of the United States has to do what's in the best interest of the United States to protect us against a potential threat.
GONYEA: When the same question was put to Texas Congressman Ron Paul, he nearly leaped over his podium.
Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): This idea of going and talking to attorneys totally baffles me. Why don't we just open up the Constitution and read it? You're not allowed to go to war without a declaration of war.
GONYEA: Romney and Giuliani did have moments of agreement in the debate yesterday, especially when it came to anticipating their party's opponent in the 2008 election.
Gov. ROMNEY: Hillary Clinton.
Mr. GIULIANI: Hillary Clinton.
Gov. ROMNEY: Most likely Hillary Clinton.
Mr. GIULIANI: She's going to give out $1,000 to everybody.
Gov. ROMNEY: The Hillary Clinton plan costs $110 billion.
Mr. GIULIANI: She wants to put a lid on our growth.
Gov. ROMNEY: I can't wait to debate with her.
GONYEA: At the end of the two hours, newcomer Fred Thompson was asked how he'd enjoyed the experience. He said he had…
Sen. THOMPSON: I've enjoyed watching these fellows. I got to admit, it was getting a little boring without me. But…
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: That's the Republican debate in Michigan as reported by NPR's Don Gonyea who covered Michigan in the years before he covered the White House.
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