GOP Debate: Rough Night in South Carolina

GOP presidential candidates see a rough night in South Carolina.

COLUMBIA, S.C., May 15, 2007 — -- During the last Republican debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, the GOP presidential candidates adhered to Reagan's 11th commandment -- thou shalt not attack thy fellow Republican. But in South Carolina, politics tends to get a little rough, and the candidates followed suit in the Fox News debate Tuesday night. Ultimately, two of the tougher guys on the stage -- former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. -- seemed to emerge the stronger for it, with sturdier performances than the first debate.

Showing the sharpest edges, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore was first to take his attacks on his rivals from his stump speeches to the debate stage, noting that "I looked back at the California debates, and I think that some of the people on this stage were very liberal in characterizing themselves as conservatives, particularly on the issues of abortion and taxes and health care." On the campaign trail, Gilmore often uses the amalgam "Rudy McRomney" -- an allegedly liberal mishmash of Giuliani, McCain, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But Gilmore refrained from identifying the targets of his wrath until prompted to repeatedly by the moderators, which undermined the boldness he was trying to project.

When delivered correctly, clever one-liners usually get easy applause and laughter. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee drew the loudest audience guffaw when he quipped that "We've had a Congress that's spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop." Referencing the rightward conversions of several candidates on issues, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., quipped that "it's beginning to truly sound like a Baptist tent revival meeting here," but noted, "I trust those conversions when they happen on the road to Damascus and not on the road to Des Moines."

Sometimes the substance of the one-liners supersedes the style and in those moments the applause is all that much richer for the candidate. Mitt Romney's anti-McCain two-fer was such a line. "My fear is that McCain-Kennedy would do to immigration what McCain-Feingold has done to campaign finance and money in politics, and that's bad," said Romney to great applause as he hit two of McCain's positions unpopular with the Republican base.

But McCain refused to take Romney's attack laying down, prompting one of the edgiest moments of the night. "Well, I take and kept a consistent position on campaign finance reform ... I have kept a consistent position on right-to-life. And I haven't changed my position on even-numbered years or have changed because of the different offices that I may be running for," said McCain in a not-so-subtle dig at Gov. Romney's recent conversions on a number of issues ranging from abortion to gay rights to taxes.

Rudy Giuliani again faced questions about his against-the-GOP-grain pro-abortion rights position. Giuliani was widely criticized after the first Republican debate for trying to straddle the issue and has been working hard ever since to make his position more clear. Tuesday night, Giuliani more clearly embraced his unorthodox stance. "There are people, millions and millions of Americans, who are of as good conscience as we are, who make a different choice about abortion," said Giuliani. "And I think in a country where you want to keep government out of people's lives, or government out of people's lives from the point of view of coercion, you have to respect that," he added, emphasizing that "there are ways in which we can reduce abortions."

But frontrunning Giuliani's brightest moment of the evening came when he challenged libertarian Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, on his assertion that America's foreign policy is partly to blame for inciting the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"Have you ever read the reasons they attacked us?" Paul asked. "They attack us because we've been over there…What would we say here if China was doing this in our country or in the Gulf of Mexico? We would be objecting. We need to look at what we do from the perspective of what would happen if somebody else did it to us."

Brandishing his popular and well documented 9/11 credentials, Giuliani blasted Paul for the "extraordinary" assertion. "I don't think I've ever heard that before, and I've heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th," Giuliani said before asking the congressman "to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn't really mean that," to loud applause.

Torture was mentioned in a scenario involving three U.S. shopping centers near major U.S. cities attacked by suicide bombers, killing hundreds and wounding thousands. The candidates were asked "how aggressively" they would interrogate someone at Guantanamo Bay to get information about a pending fourth attack.

McCain said he would in that "million-to-one scenario" allow torture, as authorized by him, but in general torture was the wrong policy. Giuliani said he "would tell the people who had to do the interrogation to use every method they could think of. It shouldn't be torture, but every method they can think of."

But for the most part, the GOPers on the stage seemed to agree with Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, who said "the standard must be protection of U.S. lives." Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said his conversation with the Secretary of Defense would consist of one sentence: "Get the information." Tancredo, in a nod to the Fox network and its popular 'ticking-time-bomb" TV show "24," said, "I'm looking for 'Jack Bauer' at that time, let me tell you."

On immigration reform, Hunter scored some well-needed attention by taking credit for having "built the border fence in San Diego. When I built that fence, we had massive illegal immigration across the border. We built the border fence; we reduced illegal immigration and smuggling of narcotics by more than 90 percent. And the crime rate in the city of San Diego fell by 50 percent." Hunter suggested that the border fence being constructed across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas is an 854-mile extension of the "San Diego fence." Though, he noted with some disdain, only two miles of the San Diego fence has been constructed.

"This administration has a case of the 'Slows' on border enforcement," Hunter noted to applause.

As happened in the last debate, the president was not only not praised by his would-be successors and fellow Republicans, he was only mentioned by name by the candidates once – and in this instance it was by Paul, observing that "George Bush won the election in the year 2000 campaigning on a humble foreign policy -- no nation-building, no policing of the world." The irony was not lost on anyone.