Candidates Skate Around the Issues in GOP Debate

Republicans Distance Themselves from Bush More Than Each Other

By JAKE TAPPER and RICK KLEIN

June 5, 2007 —

In an arena that normally serves as the home of the hockey rink for the Saint Anselm College Hawks, the 10 declared Republican White House hopefuls threw elbows at one another, skated around issues, and attempted to score at their third official GOP presidential debate.

And while Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., found himself under attack for his support of a controversial Senate immigration reform bill, by far the most-derided people of the night were President Bush and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. Of those actually present in the Granite State, McCain took most of the hits from his rivals. His position on immigration came under sharp fire from most of the other candidates with Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., leading a chorus of criticism by warning that the bill will test "whether or not we will actually survive as a nation."

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani dismissed McCain's legislation -- which is supported by the president -- as "a typical Washington mess."

"This is part of the problem in Washington: They say things and then it's not in the legislation," Giuliani said. "It does not provide information about who exited the United States. Now, tell me how you're going to figure out who's in the United States if you can't figure out who has left the United States."

But McCain defended his bill by casting it as a national security issue, and promised that the measure can be improved on the Senate floor. "We cannot [have] 12 million people washing around America illegally," the Arizona senator said, adding "for us to do nothing is silent and de facto amnesty."

Addressing the crowd, McCain said, "What we have done is what you expect us to do, my friends, and that's come together ... and sit down and figure out an approach to this problem." He added that "this isn't the bill that I would have written, but it does satisfy our national security challenges, which are severe and intense."

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., attacked the three front-runners -- Giuliani, McCain, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- for teaming up at times with liberal icon Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

"We need to move away from the Kennedy wing of the Republican Party," Hunter said.

On Iraq: Staying the Course, but Blasting the President

With the exception of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a libertarian who opposed the war from the start, there was little disagreement between the candidates on staying the course in Iraq. But McCain and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., both admitted that they didn't read the National Intelligence Estimate prepared for Congress in advance of the Iraq war in 2002, drawing criticism from former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore that senators "ought to read at least that kind of material."

Hunter, a former chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, underlined that he "read that NIE report, and I held briefings before we made the vote to go in and invited everybody, Democrat and Republican, to get the classified information."

Perhaps the most emotional and personal moment of the night came after a question from a member of the audience. Bedford, N.H., resident Erin Flanagan told the candidates that her "beloved little brother," 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Cleary, was killed in Iraq in December 2005.

"He was the best of the best and answered the call to serve our country," Flanagan said, adding, "My family has been devastated by the loss." Flanagan asked what the candidates could do "to bring this conflict to a point in which we can safely bring our troops home."

Most candidates who answered the question focused on their plans to win the war. Brownback and McCain broke away from the pack a bit. Brownback said on Wednesday he will introduce legislation to create a three-state solution in Iraq.

McCain chose a more personal touch. "Ma'am, I want to tell you thank you for your brother's service and sacrifice to our country," he said. "We are proud of you and your endurance, and we're proud of your sacrifice."

After saying the war "was very badly mismanaged for a long time," McCain said he believes the current strategy can succeed "so that the sacrifice of your brother would not be in vain, that a whole 20 million or 30 million people would have a chance to live a free life in an open society, and practice their religion, no matter what those differences are."

"This is long and hard and tough," McCain said. "But I think we can succeed. And God bless you."

Indeed, the candidates were not shy in blasting the president's handling of the war. "I think we were under-prepared and under-planned for what came after we knocked down Saddam Hussein," said Romney.

Asked how they might use President Bush were they president, Tommy Thompson, Bush's former secretary of Health and Human Services, said "I certainly would not send him to the United Nations," and suggested that Bush might be of most use "out on a lecture series." Brownback seemed to hope Bush would "take a position the way his dad did saying, 'you know, I think you need to have your time in the limelight.'"

Tancredo practically bragged about the fact that top White House aide Karl Rove told him that he "should never darken the doorstep of the White House."

"I would have to tell George Bush exactly the same thing Karl Rove told me," the Colorado congressman said, listing ways he was disappointed in the president over immigration issues, the No Child Left Behind education reform bill, and the Medicare prescription drug bill.

Some Party Soul-Searching

While the candidates were most critical of Democrats, they displayed flashes of the soul-searching within the GOP over what went wrong in last fall's congressional elections.

"We didn't do what we were hired to do," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said, explaining GOP losses at the polls. "And the people fired us. We've lost credibility, the way we bungled Katrina, the fact that there was corruption that was unchecked in Washington, and the fact that there was a feeling that there was not a proper handling of the Iraqi war in all of its details, and the indifference to people pouring over our borders."

Most of the candidates ducked questions about what to do in Iraq if the current troop "surge" fails, though they were quick to turns questions of national security into attacks against Democrats. McCain responded to comments made by Sen. Clinton, who said at Sunday's debate that the problems with the war are the president's fault, and not the fault of members of Congress.

"Sen. Clinton doesn't understand that presidents don't lose wars, political parties don't lose wars, nations lose wars," McCain said.

Gilmore slammed the Democrat for opposing the Bush tax cuts. "Hillary Clinton is wrong when she says that we should eliminate those tax cuts," the former chairman of the Republican National Committee said.

Giuliani said Democrats are "back in the 1990s" with regard to national security, and offered an oblique criticism of former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., who has labeled the "war on terror" as a "bumper sticker."

"This war is not a bumper sticker," Giuliani said. "This war is a real war."

Giuliani faced fresh questions over his support for abortion, and was asked about an op-ed penned by a Catholic bishop in Rhode Island who compared Giuliani's position of backing a woman's right to choose, while personally opposing abortion to Pontius Pilate's personal opposition to Jesus Christ's crucifixion.

"Well, Catholic bishop . . . " Giuliani said as lightning crackled the sound system out inside Sullivan Arena.

". . . any religion . . . " he continued as the sound went out again.

"That's the lightning that's having an effect on our system," debate moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN said.

"I know," Giuliani said, looking up with mock fear as the audience laughed and McCain made a show of moving away from Giuliani's side. "For someone who went to parochial schools all his life, this is a very frightening thing that's happening right now."

The issue got more serious treatment later in the debate, with Brownback declaring flatly that the GOP "can't nominate somebody who's not pro-life." But when pressed, he said he would support whoever the Republican nominee is, even if it's Giuliani.

Though the stage was crowded with 10 GOP candidates, an 11th candidate who's poised to enter the race soon -- former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. -- loomed large offstage, with polls showing he's ready to become an immediate front-runner. Shortly after the candidates on stage finished clamoring for time during the debate, Thompson enjoyed 20 uninterrupted minutes on Fox News, during which he announced the launch of a bare-bones Web site: www.imwithfred.com.

The candidates agreed broadly on a range of hot-button issues. All said they would support making English the country's official language, and none said they would change the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed forces, even though both Giuliani and Romney had taken different positions on that issue in the past.

Candidates voiced outrage at the the 30-month sentence handed earlier in the day to Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, with Romney and Giuliani implying that as president they would be inclined to pardon him, and Brownback and Tancredo flatly stating they would do so.

Asked if, in retrospect, going to war in Iraq was a mistake, Giuliani said it was "absolutely the right thing to do" since it would have been "unthinkable that you would leave Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq and be able to fight the war on terror." McCain, too, said that the decision was the right one. "Saddam Hussein had used weapons of mass destruction before on his own people and on his enemies," McCain said. "And if he'd gotten them again, he'd have used them again."

Romney, however, called the question a "non sequitur" and a "null set" since Saddam Hussein hadn't fully allowed inspectors to ensure that there weren't weapons of mass destruction.

In addition to a hint of God's presence during Giuliani's answer on abortion, Huckabee -- an ordained minister -- spoke directly and eloquently about his faith when asked about an answer he'd given at a previous debate implying he does not believe in evolution.

"To me, it's pretty simple: A person either believes that God created this process or believes that it was an accident and that it just happened all on its own," Huckabee said. "I'll tell you what I can tell this country: If they want a president who doesn't believe in God, there's probably plenty of choices. But if I'm selected as president of this country, they'll have one who believes in those words that God did create."