Civility marks Republican debate

Candidates tout their ideas to boost economy

Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Ron Paul, and Mike Huckabee participated in a televised debate at Florida Atlantic University last night. Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Ron Paul, and Mike Huckabee participated in a televised debate at Florida Atlantic University last night. (Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / January 25, 2008

WASHINGTON - Leading Republican presidential candidates, who declared in an October debate that the economy is in good shape, last night said President Bush's economic stimulus package did not go far enough to stave off what economists fear may be a looming recession.

In a debate in Boca Raton, Fla., five days before the state's GOP primary, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney said the plan to distribute tax rebate checks to 117 million families was "a good start," but needs more tax cuts to encourage businesses to hire people.

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and Senator John McCain of Arizona both called for permanent tax reductions to spur the economy, and McCain repeated his calls for lower federal spending and greater incentives to save.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee - who was alone among his main competitors last year in warning of a weakening economy - said he was "grateful that something is being done." But sounding the populist theme of his campaign, Huckabee said the money would be better spent on building US roads, employing American workers, and using US-made supplies.

"We'll probably end up borrowing this $150 billion from the Chinese, and when we get those rebate checks, most people are going to go out and buy stuff that's been imported from China," Huckabee said.

Representative Ron Paul of Texas, meanwhile, took his own party to task for running up deficits and expanding the size of government. "The Republican Party has a problem because we don't act like Republicans," he said.

The debate at Florida Atlantic University hosted a five-man field that appeared to have taken a mutual vow to stay civil and even complimentary of one another. While the Romney and McCain campaigns released TV ads last night attacking each other, on stage, the men kept their remarks conciliatory.

Instead, the candidates saved their attacks for Hillary Clinton, saying the Democratic New York senator would weaken American security by pulling the United States out of Iraq prematurely. No GOP candidate mentioned either of the other two Democratic contenders, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and former North Carolina senator John Edwards.

Asked how he would run against Hillary and Bill Clinton, who has been aggressively campaigning for his wife, Romney cocked an eyebrow.

"I frankly can't wait, because the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House with nothing to do is something I just can't imagine. I can't imagine the American people can't imagine," Romney said, declining to elaborate.

Romney said he looked forward to taking on Hillary Clinton, whom he referred to as "General Hillary Clinton," saying she is "so out of step with the American people."

Both Romney and McCain appeared relaxed and confident as they headed into a race that has the two men battling each other for first place. McCain sought to burnish his conservative credentials while describing himself as someone willing to take on the Washington establishment; Romney, who was often the target of attacks from fellow Republicans in earlier debates, deftly deflected questions about whether he kept changing his positions.

"Gosh, that's tough on their part, but, you know, I'm not terribly worried about their attacks, frankly," Romney said. "I'm not going to Washington to make friends with politicians; I'm going to Washington to change things."

McCain noted that he respected every man on the stage - and singled out Giuliani as an "American hero" because of his performance as mayor after Sept. 11, 2001. Romney passed up an opportunity to criticize his rivals on taxes, saying all of the men on stage were committed to lowering taxes.

And Huckabee said he did not think McCain was too old to be president, even though a supporter of his, Chuck Norris, had suggested so.

"I did hear what Chuck said. I was standing with him. And I didn't disagree with him at the time, because I was standing next to him," Huckabee said to chuckles from the room. "This is a guy who can put this foot on that side of my face, and there's nothing I can do about it." McCain, Huckabee said, had the "rigor and capacity" to serve as president.

The debate was the final face-off among the winnowed field of GOP candidates before Tuesday's primary in Florida. Giuliani - who largely brushed off early contests in Iowa, Nevada, and South Carolina - is hoping for a win in the Sunshine State to breathe life into his faltering campaign.

While the former New York mayor once led in national polls, he has fallen behind nationally and in Florida, where he had hoped to capitalize on a substantial population of former New Yorkers and then sweep several of the large northeastern states at stake on Feb. 5.

Asked last night about his struggling campaign, Giuliani shrugged good-naturedly. "I believe I'm going to have the same fate as the New York Giants last week," Giuliani said, referring to the football team's overtime win against the Green Bay Packers.

"We have them lulled into a very false sense of security right now," Giuliani said about his rivals, drawing appreciative laughs from the stage. But "everyone is going to have a chance," he said.

Romney, pressed to say how much of his personal fortune he had spent in Florida, refused to disclose the amount, saying it would give an unfair advantage to his competitors. And he rejected suggestions that he was seeking to buy the primary there, saying his self-financing kept him free from pressure from special interests.

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