On Sunday night in Florida, the eight Republican candidates for their party’s presidential nomination faced off before an enthusiastic crowd of several thousand and a panel of Fox News correspondents headed by network anchor Britt Hume.
Although there were some of the usual questions such as about Rudy Giuliani’s positions on social issues and “who is the real conservative?”, the debate spent more time on health care, entitlements, and foreign policy issues outside Iraq than we have seen in other recent debates. And directing their fire outward, almost all of the candidates took shots at near-certin Democratic nominee, Sen. Hillary Clinton.
The first questions were to Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, asking about criticisms of them by Fred Thompson: that Giuliani is not a conservative and that Romney “ran to the left of Ted Kennedy” in his bid for the Senate in 1994. Giuliani responded with a list of “conservative results” during his tenure as Mayor of New York City such as lowering crime rates and taxes, and Romney answered similarly that he was “proud of his record.”
When the questioner went back to Thompson asking him if Giuliani and Romney had convinced him that they are “real conservatives”, Thompson jabbed “We have an hour and a half; maybe they can work on it.” He attacked Giuliani again with a list of charges such as supporting “sanctuary cities”, to which the mayor responded that Thompson had been “the single biggest obstacle to tort reform” in the Senate.
After John McCain gave an answer about “running on my record” when Chris Wallace asked him to compare himself to Mitt Romney, Romney gave the most confused response of the evening: “Who will be able to build the house that Ronald Reagan built? Who will be able to strengthen that house, because that’s the house that’s gonna build the house that Hillary Clinton wants to build?” McCain came back at Romney with “Governor Romney, you’ve been spending the last year trying to fool people about your record. I don’t want you to start fooling them about mine.”
Fox News’ Carl Cameron asked a few questions about a constitutional amendment defining marriage. Ron Paul opposed, saying it was none of the federal government’s business and a “religious matter.” Romney supported an amendment, arguing that leaving it to states would force some states to accept gay marriages performed by other states and that it left the door open for activist “unelected liberal judges” to change marriage law. Giuliani said he does not support a marriage amendment, but would change his position if multiple states started allowing gay marriage, pointing out that marriage is a civil law matter, as well as a religious one.
After a few more minutes of discussion about social issues, John McCain said that he hopes all parts of the GOP will support whoever becomes the nominee, a clear message to social conservatives who have been wondering aloud about supporting a third party pro-life candidate should Giuliani get the nomination. It was also a shot at both Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul, both of whom, in the last debate, declined to promise to support the party’s nominee regardless of who it was.
After a few words from Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter, the questioning turned to health care. The message from the Republicans was consistent. Romney said “Democrats want government to take over” and other candidates mentioned “HillaryCare”.
Mike Huckabee noted “We don’t have a health care system, we have a health care maze. And we don’t have a health care crisis. We have a health crisis.” He got a laugh from the audience by noting that “10,000 baby boomers a day sign up for Social Security and Medicare. When all the old hippies find out that they can get free drugs, just wait ‘till what that’s gonna cost.”
On the subject of education, Fred Thompson admitted that the critics of No Child Left Behind have been correct, implicitly accepting that his vote for the measure was a mistake. When asked about his rough relationship with teachers in New York City, Giuliani said “I love teachers…but I really care about the kids more.” He described 168,000 applicants for 2,500 vouchers, saying how hard it was to have to tell all those parents that they “could not put their kids in the school of their choice”, and closed out the subject by saying that education is “the single biggest civil rights issue that we face in the 21st century.”
The questioning turned to Fox News’ most recent poll in which all of the candidates trail Hillary Clinton. Mitt Romney’s answer, questioning Senator Clinton’s (lack of) experience in the private sector, got one of his best audience responses. “Hillary Clinton wants to run the largest enterprise in the world, the government of the United States….She hasn’t run a corner store, she hasn’t run a state, she hasn’t run a city, she has never run anything.” Also, in response to a direct question, Romney said that Clinton is not fit to be Commander-in-Chief.
Giuliani was asked, with particular focus on social issues, if he is different enough from Hillary. After responding with an incredulous “You have got to be kidding”, he made fun of Hillary’s new claim to be a Yankee fan and then said there was one thing Hillary has said that he agrees with: “I (Hillary Clinton) have a million ideas. America can not afford them all.” Rudy then continued with his own thoughts: “No kidding, Hillary. America can’t afford you!”, for which he got his loudest applause of the evening.
John McCain was asked whether supporting the surge would be “a winner in 2008” to which he said “I don’t know and I can’t be concerned….I would much rather lose a campaign than lose a war.” He then moved on to talking about Hillary’s spending habits: “In case you missed it, a few days ago Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock Concert Museum. I wasn’t there, but I’m sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time.” After the debate’s only standing ovation from the crowd, McCain closed the subject with “No one can be President of the United States that supports projects such as these.”
Continuing the anti-Hillary theme, Mike Huckabee said “I like to be funny…but there’s nothing funny about Hillary Clinton being president. If she’s president, taxes go up, health care becomes the domain of the government, spending goes out of control, our military loses its morale, and I’m not sure we’ll have the courage and the will and the resolve to fight the greatest threat the country’s ever faced, in Islamofascism.”
And piling on the Democrats, Fred Thompson said that Democrats want to tax “the rich” but that “everybody who works for a living is rich according to them. They’re the party that insults our troops and tries our generals in the newspaper, and when they’re exonerated it’s on page 15 or 20.” Thompson said that Republicans must “remember our first principles…that our basic rights come from God, not from government…that we believe in free markets, free people, free enterprise….”
Ron Paul was repeatedly booed for comments on the war such as “over 70% of America wants the war over.”
The subject turned to Social Security and Medicare. Again, most of the answers were similar, with all the candidates saying the programs would bankrupt our country. Fred Thompson emphasized a different benefits indexing method. Giuliani said we need to build a national consensus around personal accounts for Social Security and that “we only have 17 million people in America who buy their own health insurance. If we had 50 or 60 million people…the price of health insurance would be cut by more than half.”
Romney said he was “prepared to be extremely bold, but not prepared to cut benefits for low-income Americans”. He praised personal accounts and slightly criticized Thompson’s focus on indexing.
Huckabee suggested that President Bush had made a mistake by arguing for “privatization” and that he should have used the word “personalization” instead, and he suggested a “one-time buyout option” for people to get out of entitlement programs.
Ron Paul said that young people need to be able to get out of the system, and added that it won’t matter very much if the US dollar keeps weakening.
Duncan Hunter tried to argue that our trade deficit opened an opportunity for tariffs which could be used to fix our budget deficit and some of our entitlement problems. True to form, Tom Tancredo tied entitlement and health care issues to illegal immigration.
The last questions turned to foreign policy. John McCain said that when he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes, he “saw three letters: K, G, and B.” He added that “the problems Russia is causing us are severe…as is assisting Iran…as (Putin) continues to consolidate power. This is a dangerous person. He has to understand that there is a cost to some of his actions.”
Giuliani added that we should expand our military “in every aspect” to dissuade Russia or China from challenging us later. He also gave his view that “A nuclear-armed Iran is more dangerous” than military action against Iran and that sanctions would probably be more effective if we were clearer with Russia and China that we would indeed act against Iran to prevent their acquiring nuclear weapons.
Tom Tancredo quipped, after talking about the Democrats’ thoughts of introducing a resolution regarding the Armenian “genocide” in 1915, that “Nancy Pelosi is not a very good Speaker of the House and she’s even a lousier Secretary of State.”
Ron Paul was booed (again) for blaming the US for the problems between Turkey and the PKK in Iraq. Mitt Romney then criticized Bill Clinton for shrinking our military and the UN for “failing in its mission.”
While the debate started out with the Republican candidates sniping at each other, they spent far more time attacking Hillary Clinton and the Democrats than each other. While Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mike Huckabee seemed to have the best performances, the “top-tier” candidates did nothing major to hurt themselves and, with much less time to speak, the second tier did little to help themselves.