WASHINGTON – The eight Republican presidential candidates took some light-hearted jabs at Fred Thompson on Wednesday night, saying they welcome him into the contest for the GOP nomination but wondered why he chose to join the race now.
"I think he's done a really good job of playing my part on 'Law and Order.' I personally prefer the real thing but I think Fred will add something to the race," said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was once a U.S. attorney.
"I was scheduled to be on Jay Leno tonight, but I gave up my slot for somebody else because I'd rather be in New Hampshire with these fine people," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Thompson, a former Tennessee senator, decided to forego the debate, opting instead to announce his candidacy on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and an Internet Webcast. He recorded his announcement about an hour before the debate at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
Thompson's absence, while noted several times throughout the evening, did not take up much time and contentious debate quickly followed on several issues such as immigration, gun control, family values and Iraq.
Asked about the resignation of Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, who pleaded guilty last month to a misdemeanor plea of disorderly conduct for allegedly soliciting a cop in a men's bathroom at a Minnesota airport in June, Rep. Duncan Hunter said the Senate leadership was right to encourage his resignation.
"I think he ought to stick with the commitment that he made. And, you know, that's one thing about our party. When our guys have problems like this, they leave. They leave the Senate or they leave the House. When the Democrats have problems like this, they often make them chairmen of their respective committees," said Hunter of California.
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback added that Craig should not backtrack and try to stay in office. He said the incident should also not cast a cloud on the promotion of family values among the GOP.
"I'm running saying that the lead thing we need to do is rebuild the family in this country. And I think we need to be clear about our efforts and willingness to do that. ... We shouldn't walk away from family values for fear that instances like this happen within our party," Brownback said. Later asked a related question, Brownback received mixed applause and boos when he said he supports a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Asked about his own family values, Giuliani, whose personal life includes two divorces and sometimes frothy relationships with his children, said he's running as an executive who knows how to get definable results in situations that people think are impossible to fix.
"Obviously, any issues in my private life do not affect my public performance," he said, adding that he is "not running as the perfect candidate for president of the United States, he's running as a human being."
Staying or Going From Iraq
Texas Rep. Ron Paul stirred much of the excitement of the evening, repeating his anti-war stance and getting into a sparring match with Huckabee over whether it's time for the United States to leave Iraq.
"Going into Iraq and Afghanistan and threatening Iran is the worst thing we can do for our national security. I am less safe, the American people are less safe for this. It's the policy that is wrong," Paul said, adding that he disagrees with war supporters who warn against leaving prematurely.
"The people who say there will be a bloodbath are the ones who said it will be a cakewalk or it will be a slam dunk, and that it will be paid for by oil. Why believe them?" he asked.
In response, Huckabee said that the United States agreed before the war started that if they break Iraq, it must buy it.
"Congressman, whether or not we should have gone to Iraq is a discussion the historians can have, but we're there. We bought it because we broke it. We've got a responsibility to the honor of this country and to the honor of every man and woman who has served in Iraq and ever served in our military to not leave them with anything less than the honor that they deserve," Huckabee said.
Paul then responded: "The American people didn't go in. A few people advising this administration, a small number of people called the neoconservatives hijacked our foreign policy. They're responsible, not the American people."
Huckabee retorted that the United States is one nation. "We can't be divided. We have to be one nation, under God. That means if we make a mistake, we make it as a single country: the United States of America, not the divided states of America," he said.
"No, when we make a mistake — when we make a mistake, it is the obligation of the people, through their representatives, to correct the mistake, not to continue the mistake," Paul replied.
"And that's what we do on the floor of the Senate," Huckabee said.
Hunter ended that discussion by saying progress by U.S. forces in Iraq should determine whether the United States should remain there.
"We've got 129 battalions in the Iraqi army that we're training up. We're training them up, we are getting them into the fight. When those Iraqi battalions are battled-hardened and they start to rotate into the positions on the battlefield displacing American forces, the American forces can then rotate out, come back to the U.S., or go to other places in Central Command. That's the right way to win. It's called victory. That's how we leave Iraq," he said.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam hero who was widely praised by the other candidates for his leadership, agreed that the surge in Iraq is working, and said he wants to bring the troops home when it's the right time.
"I know the conflict. I know war. I have seen war. I know how the military works. I know how the government works. I understand national security. I have led — I was once the commanding officer of the largest squadron in the United States Navy. I didn't manage it. I led it," he said. "I want our troops home with honor. Otherwise, we will face catastrophe and genocide in the region."
McCain added that Iran can't be allowed to gain nuclear weapons, though he didn't say what would be the tipping point for using force.
"Iranians are sending lethal IEDs that are killing American soldiers. They're training and equipping terrorists. They have dedicated themselves to the destruction of the state of Israel. They are arming Hezbollah. They are supporting Syria, and there is no doubt they are moving forward with the acquisition of a nuclear weapon. We need to work together with our allies, but at the end of the day, it's the United States of America that will make the final decision," he said.
Durham Offers No Sanctuary City for the Candidates
McCain also defended his position as a co-sponsor of an immigration reform bill this year that failed in the Senate largely because of popular opposition to the guest worker program, called "amnesty" by opponents, that was outlined in the plan.
"Amnesty, according to the dictionary, is 'forgiveness.' The proposal that we had would require fines, would require back in the line, would require deportation for some. It would require others to go back to the country of their origin. It would require an enormous amount before anyone, as long as 13 years, could even be eligible for citizenship in this country," McCain said.
"Why we failed is because the American people have lost trust and confidence in us — our failure in Katrina, our failures in Iraq, our failures to control runaway spending. ... There's 12 million people who are in this country illegally, which is de facto amnesty, and we need a temporary worker program. I commit to securing the borders first. We can secure those borders. As president, I would have the border state governors certify that those borders were indeed secure," he said.
But Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, whose platform has been based almost solely on stopping illegal immigration, said when the "wind is blowing in one direction" then the other candidates have finally gotten serious.
"I'd like to see more than rhetoric ... (enforcing immigration law) has got nothing to do with disliking people entering this country, it has to do with the rule of law. Does anyone understand that?" Tancredo said.
Romney, who ran an ad criticizing Giuliani for not prosecuting illegal immigrants in New York City, defended his enforcement of immigration law as governor of Massachusetts, saying that he could not force mayors to follow state law.
"With regards to sanctuary cities, the governors aren't responsible for mayors who are not following the law. And, actually, in my case, as soon as I learned about a program in the department of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that we could have our state police authorized to enforce the law, I did just that so that in sanctuary cities in our state — and nonsanctuary cities — the law would be enforced," Romney said.
Giuliani countered that his policy on illegal immigrants enabled him to clean up crime in the city even if it meant leaving illegals in place.
"The problem that I had was I had 400,000 illegal immigrants, roughly, in New York City. And I had a city that was the crime capital of America. I had to do something intelligent with them," he said. "So what I did was, I said — and I think this a sensible policy: If you are an illegal immigrant in New York City and a crime is committed against you, I want you to report that. Because lo and behold, the next time a crime is committed, it could be against a citizen or a legal immigrant."
Giuliani also used a similar defense to explain his support for gun control laws, though said what worked for New York City may not be the best answer for places like Virginia Tech, where a shooter killed 33 students and faculty last spring.
"I think states have a right to decide that, states have a right to decide their gun laws. The Second Amendment grants you the right to bear arms. We have a federal system," he said.
Paul cited the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as an example of the failure of the U.S. government to protect Americans by enacting too strict gun laws.
"Here is one example when the federal government was involved and they messed it up, and if we put the responsibility on the right people, respected the Second Amendment, I sincerely believe there would have been a lot less chance of 9/11 ever happening," he said.
Force Versus Freedom
Paul, who repeatedly criticized U.S. involvement in Iraq and elsewhere in the world, said the United States should not resort to force every time a confrontation occurs.
"Thinking back to the 1960s, when I was in the Air Force for five years, and there was a Cold War going on, and the Soviets had 40,000, and we stood them down, and we didn't have to have a nuclear confrontation, I would say that we should go very cautiously," he said of any new threats.
Countering that, Giuliani invoked Ronald Reagan to describe his position on when is it time to talk to enemies versus fight them.
"I heard this confusion in the Democratic debate about when to talk and when not to talk. Well, he (Reagan) talked to them (the Soviets) with a thousand missiles pointed directly at their cities," he said. "Ronald Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot."
But Tancredo said sometimes talk is not enough. While he refused to condone any forms of torture, he said he drew a broad line on which actions qualify as torture.
"I would do — certainly, waterboard — I don't believe that that is, quote, 'torture.' I would do what is necessary to protect this country. That is the ultimate responsibility of the president of the United States. All of the other things that we do, all of the other things — all of the other powers vested in him pale in comparison to his responsibility to keep the people of this country safe. And that is ultimate. And, yes, I would go to great lengths to keep this country safe."
Paul added that the ongoing threat to national security has enabled the president to gain too many powers, and those powers are being used to grow a bigger and more inefficient bureaucracy that is spending excessively without results.
"Just going for increasing presidential powers, as has been discussed, is rather disturbing to me. This whole idea that we're supposed to sacrifice liberty for security, we're advised against that. Don't we remember that when you sacrifice liberty for security, you lose both? That's what's happening in this country today," Paul said.
Romney responded that the preventing attacks will go a long way in providing civil liberties.
"And I hear from time to time people say, hey, wait a second. We have civil liberties we have to worry about. But don't forget, the most important civil liberty I expect from my government is my right to be kept alive, and that's what we're going to have to do," he said.
Among the would-be panelists in the debate were Republican voters at Young's Restaurant, who posed their questions remotely. One sheriff's deputy whose son is due back from Iraq told Romney that he was out of line for comparing his sons' campaigning for Romney to be president to the service performed by U.S. troops.
"There is no comparison, of course," Romney replied. "There's no question but that the honor that we have for men and women who serve in our Armed Forces is a place of honor we will never forget and nothing compares to it."