ORLANDO, Fla., Oct. 22, 2007— -- After two weeks of sparring at a distance out on the campaign trail, the Republican presidential hopefuls gathered in Florida for their most heated and intense debate of the year.
Fox News' Chris Wallace, the moderator, sparked the debate when he asked the candidates who was the most conservative one in the race, a classification the candidates have been squabbling about of late.
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson sought to paint Rudy Giuliani as a liberal. "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.
He went on to say Giuliani "sides with Hillary Clinton" on each of those issues. Giuliani refused to stay above the fray and hit Thompson back on tort reform. "Fred has his problems, too. I mean, Fred was the single biggest obstacle to tort reform in the U.S. Senate," Giuliani said.
Thompson's line of attack didn't seem to knock Giuliani off his game. Giuliani delivered another solid debate performance continuing to show his comfort and confidence on the trail.
The battle for the conservative mantle continued when Arizona Sen. John McCain attempted to portray former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as someone who has shifted his positions and focus on certain issues for political expediency.
"Gov. 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," said McCain.
Romney (whose normally well-coiffed hair was distractingly askew at the beginning of the debate) dialed back a bit from his initial claim to be the candidate in the race representing the Republican wing of the Republican Party.
"All of us here are Republicans, all of us are trying to put together that same coalition, but it's essential that the strength of the house Ronald Reagan built is going to lead us to become the successful nation that we've always been, and our party to be successful," said Romney.
It wasn't until roughly 20 minutes into the debate, when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, coming off a strong showing before a social conservative gathering in Washington, D.C., last week, rose above the barbs and argued that the debate should not be about tearing each other down.
"I am more than content to let you let them fight all they want tonight, shed each other's blood and then I'll be ready to run for president," Huckabee said to the panel of reporters moderating the debate. "I'm not interested in fighting these guys," he added to a big round of applause.
There was one subject that all the candidates agreed upon — that a Hillary Clinton presidency would not be good for the United States.
Romney went after Clinton's lack of executive experience.
"She hasn't run a corner store. She hasn't run a state. She hasn't run a city," said Romney. "She has never run anything. And the idea that she could learn to be president, you know, as an internship just doesn't make any sense."
Giuliani utilized Clinton's own words against her.
"She made a statement last week — and I've been very critical of her, but I want to tell her I agree with this one," Giuliani said. "Quote, Hillary Clinton, 'I have a million ideas; America cannot afford them all.'"
"No kidding Hillary American can't afford you," Giuliani said.
And McCain may have had one of the best lines of the night when he attacked Clinton on excessive spending.
"In case you missed it, a few days ago, Sen. Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock Concert Museum," said McCain.
"Now, my friends, I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time," added McCain, noting his time as a prisoner of war.
Summing up his argument, he proclaimed that "no one can be president of the United States that supports projects such as these."
Romney seems to be on the same page as former Bush political adviser Karl Rove in refusing to cede the health-care issue to the Democrats. Romney gave a passionate and strong defense of his plan to require every Massachusetts resident have health insurance.
"I'm very proud of what we did in Massachusetts, and I think it's a model that other states can adopt in some respects," said Romney."But let me tell you something about our plan. It's different than Hillary Clinton's in a lot of important ways. But one thing that I'm happy about is that Republicans are talking about health care. This isn't a Democrat issue. It's a Republican issue."
Thompson's lackluster performance on the campaign trail — including a brief four-minute speech Saturday to the Republican Party of Florida while his opponents all spoke for more then 20 minutes — caused many to wonder whether he would seize the debate opportunity to demonstrate a deeper level of engagement and commitment to the race.
Thompson certainly appeared ready to throw some elbows in the direction of Giuliani and Romney and tout his plan to reform Social Security, but his performance appeared to do little to change the dynamic of the campaign.
The debate was the first of the cycle to take place in Florida, which will hold its presidential primary early in the nominating process Jan. 29. The Democrats are not campaigning in Florida because the primary date violates DNC rules.
Giuliani, the national front-runner, has invested heavily in Florida. The Giuliani campaign believes a victory here may halt any momentum possibly acquired by another candidate in earlier contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and help launch him into a slew of potentially favorable states Feb. 5 — Super Duper Tuesday.
In an interview with ABC News, Florida's Republican Gov. Charlie Crist explained why the Sunshine State is hospitable turf for Giuliani."Well, half his state lives here now," said Crist. "Go down the east coast [of Florida], we are New, New York."