By Eric Pfeiffer
With their candidate field newly culled to just four from the 10 who initially entered the race, the remaining Republican presidential contenders participating in a televised debate Wednesday night had more time than ever to elaborate on their own issue positions – and to criticize their opponents, sometimes in harsh terms.
The main combatants at the debate, staged at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California in advance of the state’s “Super Tuesday” primary next week, were the two front-runners: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain, fresh off his momentum-building primary wins in South Carolina on Jan. 19 and in Florida on Tuesday.
The two engaged in several heated exchanges over who was more strongly committed to U.S. military involvement in Iraq, and who is more worthy of the mantle of conservative icon Reagan, whose widow, Nancy, was present and introduced to the candidates before the debate. The lengthy arguments between McCain and Romney left the longshot candidates, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Gov. Ron Paul, pleading for their share of the spotlight.
Many analysts and voter focus groups say debates have not been McCain’s strong point during the campaign and his performance was mixed again on Wednesday. But that was at least partly outweighed by the buzz generated by his win in Florida over runner-up Romney; the glowing endorsement he received earlier Wednesday from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a former rival who quit the presidential race after a poor showing in Florida; and speculation that popular Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of delegate-rich California also is poised to give his imprimatur to McCain’s campaign.
In addition to their protracted disputes over Iraq and each other’s conservative merits, , McCain and Romney debated whether military experience (the signature of former Vietnam POW McCain) or executive experience (the calling card of venture capital CEO and former governor Romney) better prepared someone to be president.
Romney also noted that McCain was endorsed for the Republican nomination by the New York Times – a newspaper that many Republicans love to hate – and said “no true conservative” would receive such an endorsement. It was a tense moment followed by Romney laughing at a clearly perturbed McCain, who tartly responded, “Let me note that I was endorsed by your two hometown newspapers, who know you best,” a reference to the backing McCain has received from the Boston Globe and Boston Herald. McCain said he was sure he would get the endorsement of the Arizona Republic, the paper in his hometown of Phoenix.
Nonetheless, Romney was well-versed in his responses throughout. He also jumped on an early and awkward factual error by McCain, who claimed the endorsement of Romney’s lieutenant governor. As Romney pointed out, it was in fact Jane Swift, his Republican predecessor as governor and a former lieutenant governor, who endorsed McCain. Romney has been endorsed by his own lieutenant governor, Kerry Healey, who was defeated by Democrat Deval Patrick in the 2006 race to succeed Romney.
Both Massachusetts and Arizona are among the long list of states voting on Super Tuesday, as is Huckabee’s home state of Arkansas. The primary in Paul’s home state of Texas is not until March 4.
Huckabee, as he has throughout the campaign, relied on his humor and conservative populist pitch in attempting to boost himself from his third-place standing in most polls. When Romney emphasized his own government executive experience – referring to his four years (2003-07) running Massachusetts – Huckabee said he would accept Romney’s endorsement because Huckabee served 10 years (1996-2007) as governor of Arkansas.
Huckabee may have been the night’s best performer, and likely benefited from not getting caught up in the McCain-Romney squabble, but he didn’t appear to have such a significant edge as to alter the overall candidate alignment.
Paul – the libertarian iconoclast whose vote totals in primaries so far have not matched the fervor of his core group of activist followers – had one of his strongest debate performances, delivering multiple applause winning lines about the economy and chiding his opponents for having political fights rather than focusing on larger, substantive issues. He also continued to stand his ground as the only Republican presidential contender who opposes the war in Iraq.
The following are the Mosts and Bests from the debate:
- Biggest Battle: McCain and Romney had a heated and bitter debate over whether Romney had at one point favored a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. McCain stuck by his assertion that Romney previously supported a withdrawal timetable and criticized him for not publicly supporting President Bush’s “troop surge” policy when it was being debated in Congress.
In a rare turn for the normally press-friendly McCain, the Arizona senator has been taken to task by what some in the media call an unfair attack on Romney. For his part, Romney twice drew applause during in his rebuttals, saying McCain should have brought up the accusation earlier in the campaign if his criticism was sincere; he also accused McCain of a “dirty trick” for raising the issue as a campaign attack just before the Florida primary. Nonetheless, McCain refused to back down from his debate position, repeatedly returning to the subject during later questions.
Regardless of who won the timetable argument, it was Paul who later won applause when he called the McCain/Romney debate “silly,” and suggested the candidates instead debate the larger components of foreign policy, rather than “technicalities” over who supported the surge first and most vigorously. Paul used the debate to reiterate his position that going to war in Iraq was wrong and that the intervention should be ended.
- Biggest endorsement: For the last question of the debate, moderator Anderson Cooper asked the candidates whether Ronald Reagan would endorse each of them.
Romney answered first and was the only candidate to declare the former president would “absolutely” back his campaign. “Like Reagan, I’d go to Washington as an outsider,” Romney said of the longtime actor who served as governor of California and never held federal office before winning the presidency in 1980.
Citing issues such as Iraq, federal spending, abortion, energy policy and Romney’s support for a federal amendment banning same-sex marriage, Romney associated his record with Reagan’s larger philosophical beliefs – even encompassing Romney’s support for the long-blocked proposal for oil extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) which McCain has opposed. “Ronald Reagan would say, “Yeah, let’s drill in ANWR.”
McCain, rather than say whether Reagan would endorse him, again used the opportunity to go after Romney with his oft-stated accusation that his opponent flip-flops on issues, saying, “Ronald Reagan would not approve of someone that changes their position depending on what the year is.” McCain then reiterated the political risk he took in calling for the resignation of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and supporting the Iraq surge. “I think he knows that I stick with my principles,” McCain said of Reagan.
Paul may have offered some of the most concrete evidence of an early connection to Reagan, saying, “I supported Ronald Reagan in 1976” – when Reagan challenged incumbent President Gerald R. Ford for the Republican nomination – “and there were only four of us in Congress that did.” He also said Reagan agreed with him on maintaining the gold standard over the paper dollar, and noted that Reagan campaigned on behalf of Paul’s previous congressional campaigns.
Huckabee went the humble route, saying of Reagan, “I think it would be incredibly presumptuous and arrogant to think that he would endorse any of us.” Instead, Huckabee offered his own praise, saying, “I endorse him.”
- Better Off With or Without Bush? At separate times during the debate, the four candidates were asked if the country was better off after eight years of George W. Bush as president and whether his Republican Party was better off than eight years ago.
Romney avoided answering the first question, saying instead, “I’m pleased with what I did as governor,” and focusing his criticism on the federal government at large, declaring, “Washington has not dealt with the problems we have as a nation.” Though he did credit Bush with getting the country out of a recession in 2002, Romney did say he doesn’t believe the Republican Party is better off than it was eight years ago.
McCain said he believes the country is better off overall, but had an uncomfortable moment when he stumbled over his words while attempting to discuss mortgage rates and other elements of economic policy. One of Romney’s chief campaign themes is that he is better qualified to deal with the public’s economic concerns than McCain.
Huckabee said Americans are not better off than they were eight years ago, and said the country needs a president who considers how decisions affect citizens at the “bottom” of the economic spectrum. Paul was most forceful, saying, “We’re not better off, we’re worse off,” because of the war in Iraq and an expansion in federal spending.
- Biggest Blessing. All four candidates refused to say whether they agreed with Schwarzenegger’s environmentalist initiatives, but all said they supported his right to pursue them on federalist principles. McCain joked he was not going to disagree with the former action movie star and bodybuilder when he was sitting so close by in the audience.
- Biggest Bond. Huckabee and McCain repeatedly made kind gestures toward one another, with McCain specifically noting that both candidates had been the targets of millions of dollars worth of “attack ads” from the Romney campaign. Huckabee has been a rumored possibility as a vice presidential candidate should McCain get the nomination, and many election analysts believe his continued presence in the race of the evangelical minister draws the support of religious conservatives away from Romney.
- To Russia Without Love. Despite often disagreeing on the debate stage, Huckabee and Romney took turns taking repudiating Russian President Vladimir Putin. When asked about President Bush’s claim to have “seen into the soul” of Putin, Huckabee said an individual’s actions speak louder than his eyes. Romney went one step further, comparing the Putin government to previous authoritarian Russian and Soviet Union regimes.