WASHINGTON – The Republican presidential candidates were fanning out across America on Monday after spending a lively evening failing to agree on who is the most conservative candidate in the White House race, but reaching consensus on the most liberal: Hillary Clinton.
Sunday night’s GOP presidential primary debate in Orlando, Fla., offered some of the sharpest jabs of the campaign season but much of the argument was good-natured and went for laughter over anger.
Still, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, who both had great weekends keying in on conservative voters in Florida and Washington, D.C., were left to defend their performances as governor and mayor of largely liberal Massachusetts and New York City respectively.
Right out of the box, latecomer Fred Thompson accused Giuliani of supporting both abortion and sanctuary cities — taboo positions for conservatives.
"Mayor Giuliani believes in federal funding for abortion. He believes in sanctuary cities. He's for gun control. He supported Mario Cuomo, a liberal Democrat, against a Republican who was running for governor; then opposed the governor's tax cuts when he was there," Thompson said.
Giuliani, however, was prepared to rebut accusations that he is not a "real Republican" — a term frequently used at conservative forums in the days leading up to Sunday night's debate. He said not only did he reduce taxes and balance the budget, but he "drove pornography out of Times Square."
"I had the most legal city in the country. And I took the crime capital of America and I turned it into the safest large city in the country. The senator has never had executive responsibility. He's never had the weight of people's safety and security on his shoulders," he said, responding to Thompson.
Giuliani explained that he chose not to prosecute illegal aliens on their immigration status because his first priority was fighting crime. Getting illegals to report crimes in their communities without fear of retribution was key to that task.
He said he "outperformed any expectations" in dealing with high rates of crime and got a "heck of a lot of conservative results" while mayor of New York City. He also fought back against Thompson, accusing him of being the "single biggest obstacle to tort reform in the United States Senate."
"He voted against $250,000 caps on damages, which they have in Texas. He voted against almost anything that would make our legal system fairer: 'loser pays' rules, things that would prevent lawsuits like that $54 million lawsuit by that guy who lost his pants — you know?" Giuliani said.
But Thompson was prepared with his own defense, responding that he supported tort reform when it came to interstate commerce issues but not local matters.
"Local issues belong at the state level. Most states have passed tort reform," he said, adding that he also fought for tax cuts, a balanced budget and welfare reform. The former Tennessee senator and "Law & Order" star added that his own conservatism was demonstrated by his support of strict constructionist judges and his "100 percent pro-life record" in the U.S. Senate.
Thompson also took a shot at Romney, wrapping it up in an assault on Massachusetts' senior senator.
"Actually, Mitt, I didn't know there was any room to the left of Ted Kennedy ... In fact, I didn't know there was any room to the right of him, either, but maybe," he said to laughter.
Romney responded that his conservative record as governor of Massachusetts demonstrates "my approach is best for our nation." He said that he fought against sanctuary cities, for welfare reform and tax cuts.
Romney said he was "fighting against the liberal lion in perhaps the toughest state in America." He added that the plan he offered for mandatory health care for Massachusetts did not rely on government to provide care, the way it would under a plan proposed by Clinton, the Democratic presidential frontrunner.
"All of us on the stage are Republican. But the question is, 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 going to build the house that Clinton, Hillary, wants to build," Romney said.
Trying a different tack, Romney praised John McCain for his service to the nation, but said the Arizona senator had been wrong to characterize him as a johnny-come-lately to conservatism.
"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," McCain responded before launching an explanation of why he is best prepared for the White House.
"I am prepared. I need no on-the-job training. I wasn't a mayor for a short period of time. I wasn't a governor for a short period of time. For 20-some years, including leading the largest squadron in the United States Navy, I led. I didn't manage for profit, I led for patriotism," he said.
Turning the tone of the debate in a different direction, Mike Huckabee rejected the catfight, noting that he's content to let the other candidates fight it out. "Shed each other's blood and then I'll be ready to run for president because I'm not interested in fighting these guys. What I'm interested in is fighting for the American people, and I think they're looking for a presidential candidate who's not so interested in a demolition derby against the other people in his own party," Huckabee said.
Rep. Duncan Hunter also took issue with questions by the panelists that were "dividing the party." He said the infighting doesn't demonstrate the true strength of the party, which lies in its support for freedom, something the Democratic Party abandoned when it failed to support Cuban freedom fighters in 1961.
"A Democrat president with an aircraft carrier sitting a few miles offshore said we will not help the freedom fighters. And a thousand miles away from there is El Salvador, where a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, hung tough, brought freedom to El Salvador. And you know something? Today, they are fighting side by side with our guys in Iraq," Hunter said.
Appealing to Conservatives Through Social Issues
Addressing issues of concern to conservative voters, Huckabee said the "sanctity of human life" would be one of the top priorities he would fight for on behalf of the American people.
"When our founding fathers put their signatures on the Declaration of Independence, those 56 brave people, most of whom, by the way, were clergymen, they said that we have certain inalienable rights given to us by our creator, and among these life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, life being one of them. I still believe that," said the former Arkansas governor, who is also an ordained Baptist preacher.
Rep. Ron Paul said he opposed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage because he didn't believe it was a federal issue.
"This should be a religious matter. All voluntary associations, whether they're economic or social, should be protected by the law. But to amend the Constitution is totally unnecessary to define something that's already in the dictionary. We do know what marriage is about," Paul said.
But Romney said he supports a federal ban because he comes from a state that has gay marriage and knows "the consequences of gay marriage fall far beyond just the relationship between a man and a woman. They also relate to our kids and the right of religion to be practiced freely in a society."
"The status of marriage, if it's allowed among the same sex individuals in one state is going to spread to the entire nation. And that's why it's important to have a national standard for marriage," he said. "My state's constitution was written by John Adams. It isn't there."
Giuliani said he too supports a constitutional amendment.
"If a lot of states start to do that, three, four, five, six states, where we have that kind of judicial activism, and the kind of situation the governor is talking about actually occurs, if we're dealing with a real problem, then we should have a constitutional amendment. I did 210 weddings when I was mayor of New York City. So I have experience doing this. They were all men and women. I hope," he said, joking that he couldn't be certain in New York City.
Group Slap at Hillary Clinton
During the debate, the candidates took several opportunities to accost Democratic frontrunner Clinton, for, among other things, her health care proposals, her questionable early support for the New York Yankees baseball franchise and her proposed spending on a variety of issues, including last week's budget amendment to earmark $1 million for a Woodstock music museum to commemorate the 1969 festival.
"I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time," McCain said earning a standing ovation for the not-so-veiled reference to his five-and-a-half year confinement in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp.
But McCain, who polls closest to Clinton in hypothetical match-ups, said that he wants to have a respectful debate with Clinton on national security, fiscal and social conservatism because "that is what the American people want."
Giuliani, however, wasn't offering Clinton much respect, and when asked if he can be compared to her because of their shared positions on issues like gun control and gay rights, responded, "You've got to be kidding."
"I've been very critical of her, but I want to tell her I agree with this one. Quote, Hillary Clinton, 'I have a million ideas; America cannot afford them all.' I'm not making it up. I am not making it up," Giuliani said to laughter. "No kidding Hillary — America can't afford you."
Giuliani also said he doesn't subscribe to the polls that show Clinton beating all the Republican candidates in hypothetical match-ups.
"If those polls are correct, then the president of the United States right now is John Kerry, last time I checked," he said. "If those polls are correct, we'd have Al Gore here and, I don't know, it might be a little colder — I'm not sure. But I'm not sure we'd be any better off, right?"
But Huckabee didn't take so lightly the challenge posed by Clinton.
"You know, it's interesting, the most, I guess, wonderful reaction we've had in this entire room is when Hillary's name is mentioned. It gets louder than an Aerosmith concert. But I want to say this — you've asked: What's the difference? No matter which one of us is on this stage — and, look, I like to be funny, let me be real honest with you. There's nothing funny about Hillary being president," he said.
Health Care as a Federal Responsibility
Still comparing the Republicans to Clinton, Romney said that health care "isn't a Democrat issue. It's a Republican issue." He defended his plan for Massachusetts as distinct from "Hillary Care."
"For Democrats, they want to have government take it over. And I don't want to have the guys who did the cleanup at Katrina taking responsibility for health care in this country," he said.
But Hunter said Romney's health care proposals have too many mandates that drive up the costs of health care.
"It's got to have, for example, fertility coverage. Well, what if you're 90 years old? We may appreciate Governor Romney's optimism but you may not need fertility coverage," the California congressman said.
Romney then countered that the only mandates that remained in Massachusetts' bill were ones passed by the Democratic legislature.
"The price of the premium for an individual, 42 years old, in Boston, used to be $350 a month. Now, it's $180. We basically cut it in half by deregulating," Romney said.
Rep. Tom Tancredo said that any discussion of health care reform should be focused on reducing government regulation and programming.
"You know, (filmmaker) Michael Moore went to Cuba not too long ago, and wrote this documentary about the greatness of the system, how wonderful it was to be in Cuba and have a socialized medical system. You notice, however, that Michael Moore came back to the United States," Tancredo said. "Now, there's a reason that he did that, of course. It's because we have the best system in the world. And why? It's because we do rely more on individuals than not."
Tancredo also said structural changes are needed to reform the Social Security system. The Colorado congressman, who has made illegal immigration his key issue, said both health care and Social Security are badly affected by the onslaught of illegals living inside the U.S.
"Let me tell you what health care means to illegal immigrants — a billion dollars a year in California. Eighty-six or more hospitals closed, maybe up to hundreds of hospitals closed throughout this country because they've had to provide care for illegal immigrants and can not be reimbursed. So there's a health care problem and a Social Security problem that also deals with illegal immigration," Tancredo said.
Thompson suggested indexing future benefits based on prices rather than wages to help make Social Security more solvent.
"Current retirees — or for those near retirement wouldn't be affected. And those retiring in the future would get the same benefits in real dollars as those retiring now, but not more," he said..
Added Huckabee, warning of the coming entitlement crisis in Medicare and Social Security: "I just want to remind everybody when all the old hippies find out that they get free drugs, just wait until what that's going to cost out there."
Battle Over Who is Strongest in International Affairs
On international issues, McCain said he was concerned about Russia's recent moves. He said unlike President Bush, when he looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes, he didn't see his soul, he only saw three letters: "a K, a G and a B."
"He bullies his neighbors and he wants to get a control of the energy supply of Western Europe. This is a dangerous person. And he has to understand that there's a cost to some of his actions. And the first thing I would do is make sure that we have a missile defense system in place in Czechoslovakia and Poland, and I don't care what his objections are to it," McCain said, suggesting that tough times lie ahead because Russia and China are "blocking meaningful action to keep us in a peaceful world in the United Nations."
Romney said that the U.N. has failed in its mission as an international body, and added that it's important for the U.S. to have a strong military and strong economy to be a guiding force that can prevent regional disputes from flaring.
Giuliani said a nuclear-armed Iran should also be prevented. He said if the international community knew that the U.S. was very serious about it, then other countries would take it more seriously.
"In foreign affairs ... self-interest is enormously important. You have to figure out the other person's self-interest and you have to deal with that," he said, noting that Ronald Reagan demonstrated his seriousness and that led to the hostages in Iran being released.
As for the threatened Turkish incursion into northern Iraq to ward off Kurdish terrorists crossing its borders to attack local populations, Thompson said he hoped diplomacy could work because the U.S. has friends on both sides of the issue. He also criticized House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for offering an Armenian 'genocide' resolution critical of the Ottoman Turks a century ago, knowing that it would agitate the situation in the region.
"Nancy Pelosi is not a very good speaker of the House and she is an even lousier secretary of state," Tancredo added.
Paul earned boos for saying that U.S. interventionism aggravated the situation with the Turkish-Iraqi border, saying if the United States hadn't tried to sort out other nation's problems, the threats would be much less.