Aug. 5, 2007 — -- So much for a quiet Sunday morning in Iowa.
The Republican presidential contenders didn't waste a minute during their first network television debate, each aggressive, eager and ready to tackle questions on abortion, foreign policy and the role of the vice president, with their gloves off.
"I get tired of people that are holier than thou because they've been pro-life longer than I have," said GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, in a thinly veiled attack on GOP rival Sen. Sam Brownback.
Romney called an Iowa robo-call paid for by the Brownback campaign attacking Romney's changed abortion stance as "desperate" and "negative."
Brownback, who champions the "pro-life" stance as a "core issue" for the GOP, said the robo-call was "truthful" and promised to appoint a judge to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani defended his lone "pro-choice" voice in the GOP candidate pool as "a decision that a woman should make with her conscience and her doctor."
Candidates had harsh words for Democratic rival Barack Obama, who threatened Pakistani leaders this week by saying the United States would intervene with force if they didn't do a better job identifying terrorists that take refuge there.
"He's gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week," Romney said of Obama.
Romney continued: "I think Obama is confused as to who our friends and who our enemies are."
The former Massachusetts governor also duked it out with Giuliani, who supports invading Pakistan as "an option that should remain open."
"I would take that option if there was no other way to crush al Qaeda, no other way to crush the Taliban, no other way to catch bin Laden," Giuliani said.
"We keep our options quiet. We don't go out to say to a nation that's working with us that we intend to go in there and bring on a unilateral attack," said Romney. "The only people who can defeat radical jihadists are Muslims themselves."
California Rep. Duncan Hunter echoed Romney's sentiment.
"When you have a country that is cooperating, you don't tell them you are going to unilaterally move against them," Hunter said.
Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton struck back at the GOP debate. "The fact that the same Republican candidates who want to keep 160,000 American troops in the middle of a civil war couldn't agree that we should take out Osama bin Laden if we had him in our sights proves why Americans want to turn the page on the last seven years of Bush-Cheney foreign policy."
Vice President Dick Cheney's role during the Bush presidency came into question during a viewer-submitted question that asked the candidates what authority they would delegate to the office of vice president.
Arizona Sen. John McCain quipped that he'd given a lot of thought to the powers of the vice president, as he'd been considered for the job on more than one occasion but went on to clarify that he'd "be very careful to make everyone understand that there was only one president."
Giuliani said he was comfortable with a vice president who could take over "at a moment's notice."
Tipping his hat to the current administration, Romney agreed: "People like to criticize the president and vice president, and they have made mistakes, but they've kept us safe."
Brownback argued that the vice president should be able to provide experience and wisdom but subtly criticized the president for relying too heavily on Cheney.
"You need somebody coming in with foreign policy experience so they don't have to depend on the vice president as much," Brownback said.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul had harsher words for the administration, saying that Cheney is more powerful than Bush and that he would support an amendment to define the Vice President's duties.
All but two of Republcan presidential candidates oppose a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.
Responding to a video question asking the candidates to clarify their strategies for ending the war in Iraq, Rep. Ron Paul came out swinging in support of immediate withdrawal.
"We went in illegally, and we ought to just come home," Paul charged from the podium to scattered audience cheers.
Paul is co-author, alongside Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Dennis Kucinich, of a House resolution to begin immediate withdrawal.
On the opposite end, McCain echoed his support of the president's Iraq strategy.
"We do now have a strategy that is succeeding. We do have a military whose morale is up because they see this success."
"I'm going to be judged by history, not by public opinion polls," McCain said, saying he looked to the generals on the ground to lead the war strategy.
Since the Minneapolis bridge collapse last week, national infrastructure weighs heavily on the national conscience, and assured improvements in this area also came into play.
"The way to do it is to reduce taxes and raise more money," Giuliani said to audience applause.
Citing his time spent as the New York City mayor and taking a dig at the three senatorial Democratic front-runners, Giuliani said he was "against the liberal Democratic assumption that you have to raise taxes to raise money."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee dealt harsher criticism: "[We have] better navigation in our rental cars than we do running the country today."
Taking a not-so-subtle dig at current foreign policy, Huckabee said, "We have to start addressing building this country, and not everybody else's."
Romney said that "growing the American economy" was the core of improving national infrastructure, while McCain chastised congressional pork barrel spending, implying it was a fiscal roadblock to improvements in national infrastructure, and he promised to veto every bill of its kind "that comes across my desk."
With no White House incumbent to lead the campaign season on the Republican side, the contenders have a tough sell in states with early-nominating contests as they set out to claim territory in a crowded candidate pool.
Fighting sagging approval ratings of the Bush administration and growing national restlessness over the war in Iraq, the contenders walk a fine line in trying appeal to both the party base and to moderates eager for change.
Going into the debate and the Aug. 11 Iowa straw poll, Romney leads. =
Senior political report and author of The Note Rick Klein said post-debate, "Mitt Romney came in as the front-runner, and he did nothing today to change that fact."
Klein felt there were "a number of missed opportunities for those in the second tier -- the same folks who needed to make a splash a week before the Ames straw poll."
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Sunday, former Romney leads his Republican rivals, both in overall support and ratings of personal attributes, but Iowa caucus-goers indicate they are eager for more GOP choices at the ballot box.
Only 19 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers say they're "very satisfied" with their choices in the presidential contest. (On the Democratic side, 53 percent are "very satisfied.")
In the current climate, 26 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers back Romney. Giuliani comes in at 14 percent, while former Sen. Fred Thompson -- who has yet to formally announce his candidacy or campaign in Iowa -- has a 13 percent backing. McCain and Huckabee each have 8 percent support.
Lukewarm Republican enthusiasm in Iowa manifests itself in several ways. If it doesn't heat up until the caucus next January, it could lend to lower turnout -- Iowans are currently less likely to say they'll attend a Republican caucus than a Democratic one. Low turnout of GOP caucus-goers could ultimately hurt such candidates as Giuliani, who do less well among conservative Republicans.
On the other hand, a spark-free candidate pool also opens the possibility of shifting presidential preferences in the Hawkeye State. Romney is the party's front-runner in Iowa, but only 41 percent of Romney's backers support him "strongly," and across the GOP strong support runs to just 46 percent. (Strong support for Democrats in Iowa is 10 points higher, peaking at 60 percent for Hillary Clinton.)