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Stretch run starts here

With primaries about a month away, candidates go on attack.

By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
Published November 29, 2007

Mitt Romney, left, and Rudy Giuliani had a spirited exchange on immigration early in the CNN/YouTube Republican presidential debate at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. Giuliani leads national and Florida polls, though Romney leads in states with early primaries.
[Chris Zuppa | Times]

[Chris Zuppa | Times]
Eight Republican candidates took the stage at the Mahaffey, fielding questions posed submitted through YouTube.

Never mind the niceties.

Barely five minutes into the Republican presidential debate Wednesday night in St. Petersburg, Rudy Giuliani and his self-appointed foil, Mitt Romney, were tussling over which of them coddled illegal immigrants more.

Then Romney got into it with Mike Huckabee, suggesting he was even worse for trying to help the children of illegal immigrants go to college.

And during the segment when candidates aired their own campaign commercials, Fred Thompson's spot said nothing about Fred Thompson: Instead, it hit Romney for once supporting abortion rights and Huckabee for raising taxes when he was governor of Arkansas.

"What's up with that?" moderator Anderson Cooper asked Thompson.

Thompson shrugged innocently.

"I wanted to give my buddies here a little extra air time," Thompson drawled. "What do you mean, What's up with it? These are their words."

And that was all before the first commercial break.

The schtick behind the CNN/YouTube debate, aired live from St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater, was forcing the candidates to answer questions submitted via video from people across the country.

The people certainly delivered Wednesday, forcing the candidates to spar on issues dear to the conservatives that dominate the nomination process: illegal immigration, spending and taxes, gun rights and abortion, religion, torture and America's role in the world.

In past debates, the Republicans spent much of their time attacking the leading Democratic candidate, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Wednesday, Clinton was rarely mentioned Huckabee offered to launch her to Mars. Instead, with Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus just 36 days away, the candidates sought to distinguish themselves from one another, brandishing their conservative credentials and burnishing their resumes as senator, governor, congressman and mayor.

It made for some sharp exchanges and good political theater, particularly on the most pressing issue for many Republican activists, illegal immigration.

The first question, from Ernie Nardi of Brooklyn, N.Y., put Giuliani on the defensive for how he dealt with illegal immigrants as mayor of New York: "If you become president of the United States, will you continue to aid and abet the flight of illegal aliens into this country?"

Giuliani delivered the crowd-pleasing answer - he would enforce immigration laws. But Romney was soon accusing him of running a "sanctuary city."

The mayor struck back. "It's unfortunate, but Mitt generally criticizes people in a situation in which he's had far the worst record. ...

"At his own home, illegal immigrants were being employed, not being turned into anybody or by anyone."

Romney glared. "Mayor, you know better than that."

"You did have illegal immigrants working at your mansion, didn't you?" Giuliani asked.

No, Romney said, arguing that it's not reasonable to expect individuals to know the hiring practices of the companies they hire.

Giuliani wouldn't budge. "So I would say he had sanctuary mansion, not just sanctuary city."

After Huckabee explained that as governor of Arkansas, he supported letting children of illegal aliens apply for college scholarships, not lower tuition rates, Romney struck again.

"He basically said that he fought for giving scholarships to illegal aliens," Romney said. "Mike, that's not your money. That's the taxpayers' money."

Huckabee, who throughout the debate was firm but not combative, argued for compassion. "In all due respect, we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did. We're a better country than that."

And then it was on to a cascade of red-meat Republican issues: Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian from Texas, answered a question by explaining that, yes, there indeed is a plan for a North American Union with Canada and Mexico, and that America's sovereignty is in danger for it. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, pledged to veto spending bills chocked with pork.

Huckabee, who has been criticized by fiscal conservative for raising taxes in Arkansas, pledged to institute a national sales tax and do away with the Internal Revenue Service.

"More people are more afraid of an audit than they are of a mugging, and there's a reason why," Huckabee said to cheers.

The sparring throughout much of the debate reflected the current political landscape: Giuliani is leading in polls in Florida and nationally, while Romney is tied with Huckabee in Iowa and ahead in the second test state, New Hampshire.

Thompson, the former senator from Tennessee, is running hard to catch them and, despite his genteel manner, he delivered the sucker punch of the night: That attack ad introduced by moderator Cooper as a "YouTube-style" campaign video.

Romney's switch from abortion rights to antiabortion has been sand in the gears of his candidacy, and he answered like he always does. "On abortion I was wrong," he said. "I'm proud to be pro-life, and I'm not going to be apologizing to people for becoming pro-life."

Unlike during the CNN/YouTube Democratic debate this summer, the candidates spent little time on Iraq - except for Paul, the only Republican who backs removing U.S. troops.

Despite the war's growing unpopularity, McCain pounced all over him.

"I want to tell you that that kind of isolationism, sir, is what caused World War II. We allowed - we allowed Hitler to come to power with that kind of attitude of isolationism and appeasement," McCain barked.

"And I want to tell you something, sir. I just finished having Thanksgiving with the troops, and their message to you is - the message of these brave men and women who are serving over there is, 'Let us win.' "

When Giuliani went to answer a question as to whether or not he believes every word in the Bible, Huckabee interrupted. "Do I need to help you out, Mayor, on this one?"

After Giuliani explained he believed the Bible, but not literally, and Romney fudged his way through, Huckabee, noted he was the only one with a theological degree, and said, certainly, parts of the Good Book are indeed good allegory.

"But the Bible has some messages that nobody really can confuse and are really not left up to interpretation," he said, seeking the rhetorical high ground before the time ran out. "'Love your neighbor as yourself.' And, 'As much as you've done it to the least of these brethren, you've done it unto me.'

"Until we get those simple, real easy things right, I'm not sure we ought to spend a whole lot of time fighting over the other parts that are a little bit complicated."

Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at or (202) 463-0577.

[Last modified November 29, 2007, 00:56:19]

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