GOP Candidates Spar Over Conservatisim

Florida presidential debate centers on direction of GOP and Hillary Clinton.

ByABC News
February 18, 2009, 12:54 PM

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.