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GOP hopefuls turn up the heat

Romney, Giuliani take hits in debate

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (left) laughed along with Rudy Giuliani (center) and Mitt Romney last night. Several other candidates expressed frustration that Republicans were using the national stage to tear down fellow candidates. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (left) laughed along with Rudy Giuliani (center) and Mitt Romney last night. Several other candidates expressed frustration that Republicans were using the national stage to tear down fellow candidates. (reinhold matay/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

WASHINGTON - The eight Republican candidates for president held a fiery debate last night filled with charges and confrontations about who is a true conservative and "real Republican" as they defended their stands on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and taxes.

In one bitter exchange, Senator John McCain of Arizona turned to Mitt Romney and said: "Governor Romney, you've just spent the last year trying to fool people about your record. I don't want you to start fooling them about mine."

The attack appeared to be a reference to the former Massachusetts governor's past support for abortion rights and gay rights. McCain also has expressed displeasure for the past week at Romney's statement that he "represents the Republican wing of the Republican Party."

In the debate, which was held in Orlando, Fla., and broadcast live on the Fox News Channel, Romney called McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, "an American hero." He then turned his attention to defending his record as a 1994 Senate candidate and governor.

Telling the national television audience that he dealt with a Legislature that was 85 percent Democratic, Romney said, "We faced a $3 billion budget gap. We solved it without raising taxes, without adding debt."

Citing passage of a health reform bill, Romney rejected the notion that Democrats deserved much credit for it. "I'm not going to give the Democratic Legislature credit for the plan," Romney said.

Fred Thompson, former US senator from Tennessee, appearing in his second debate, used the platform to take sharp aim at Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York.

"Mayor Giuliani believes in federal funding for abortion," Thompson said, adding, "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. So I simply disagree with him on those issues. And he sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues I just mentioned."

After listening to Thompson's attack, Giuliani unloaded on his opponent with a detailed set of charges against Thompson, accusing the lawyer and actor of opposing tort reform legislation, which Giuliani said would have cracked down on frivolous lawsuits.

"Fred was the single biggest obstacle to tort reform in the United States Senate," Giuliani said. "He stood with Democrats over and over again. He voted against $250,000 caps on damages, which they have in Texas. He voted against almost anything that would make our legal system fairer."

Thompson responded by saying that he supported tort reform on matters such as product liability but said that the states should take the overall lead on tort reform. "Local issues belong at the state level," Thompson said. "Most states have passed tort reform."

Later in the debate, Thompson sought to take the initiative when asked about his proposal to cut benefits for future retirees in order to make Social Security solvent. "There's no reason to run for the presidency of the United States if you can't tell the truth," Thompson said.

The proposal is considered politically risky because of the unpopularity of cutting benefits. Many other Republican candidates have said they oppose raising taxes but haven't said how they would fix Social Security. Candidates such as Giuliani and Romney have not produced a specific Social Security plan.

Romney said he was "prepared to be entirely bold" in proposing a plan. He laid out several options but did not say which one he would embrace, although he said he would consider cutting benefits for higher-income workers.

Several other candidates expressed frustration that Republicans were using the national stage to tear down fellow candidates instead of focusing their attention on the Democratic front-runner in polls, Senator Clinton of New York. Former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas complained that the debate was turning into a "demolition derby."

"I'm kind of glad I wasn't in on the first few minutes because it was all about these guys fighting each other," Huckabee said.

Huckabee, who has risen in the polls in part due to support from evangelical Christians, referred to his opposition to abortion, saying, "There are some real issues out there in this country we need to be fighting for on behalf of the people. Now, one of them, quite frankly, I do believe, is the sanctity of human life."

Representative Duncan Hunter of California criticized a Fox News questioner for helping to incite the charges and countercharges among candidates.

Drawing hoots from the audience, Representative Ron Paul of Texas, an antiwar candidate and libertarian, said, "We don't need to assume that the world is going to blow up." He called for a noninterventionist approach to foreign policy "that won't bankrupt us," and will allow the country to devote more funds and attention to domestic needs.

Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who has made a tough stand on immigration his central issue, criticized policies that he said give illegal immigrants subsidized healthcare.

Giuliani, who has opposed a constitutional ban on gay marriage, turned a question about the issue into a joke about officiating at 210 civil unions while he was the city's mayor. All the marriages, he said, were between a man and a woman. Pausing for effect, he said, "I hope." Amid laughter, Giuliani added, "You've got to give me some slack here. This is New York City."

Romney noted that he is from a state that allows same-sex marriage. "The status of marriage, if it's allowed among the same-sex individuals in one state, is going to spread to the entire nation," he said. "And that's why it's important to have a national standard for marriage."

After the Republicans concluded the first hour of the debate, which was dominated by the attacks on one another, they moved to more comfortable ground - attacking Clinton. Romney said Clinton was unfit to be commander in chief because she has not had enough administrative experience. "She has never run anything," he said.

Giuliani quoted Clinton as saying, "I have a million ideas. America cannot afford them all." He added: "America can't afford you."

"There is nothing funny about Hillary being president," Huckabee said. He predicted that taxes would go up, healthcare would become the domain of government, and spending would go out of control. He also said the military will lose morale and the fight against terrorism will be hurt if Clinton is elected.

Turning to foreign policy issues, McCain said that as president, he would stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and insist on a missile-defense system in Europe. "When I looked into Mr. Putin's eyes, I saw three letters - a K, a G, and a B . . . This is a dangerous person" he said. Putin previously worked in the Soviet secret police, which was known by its initials, KGB.

Giuliani said he would draw lessons from former President Reagan's approach to foreign policy, including becoming so strong militarily that attacking the United States would be unthinkable.

Paul drew hoots from the crowd when he suggested that a terrorist attack on US soil was not looming and called for a noninterventionist approach "that will not bankrupt us," will allow the country to devote more funds and attention to domestic needs.

McCain got off one of his classic lines when he contrasted his time as a prisoner of war with what he called a proposal by Clinton to provide $1 million on a "Woodstock Concert Museum" to commemorate the famous 1969 outdoor concert. "I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event," McCain said to laughter, then added: "I was tied up at the time."

Thompson was given the final word in the debate when a Fox News questioner asked Thompson about the perception that he doesn't have the fire to be a presidential candidate and that he is lazy.

He responded by reciting his life story, from being a teenage father, Senate Watergate Committee minority counsel, US senator, and father of two daughters late in life, saying, "If a man can do all that and be lazy, I recommend it to everybody."

The debate was broadcast at the same time as another Fox station broadcast a program that seemed likely to receive a much higher viewership, at least in New England: game seven of the Red Sox-Indians playoff series.

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