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Republicans go easy on each other at debate
In generally polite exchanges, the presidential hopefuls focus on issues, not their rivals.
By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published January 25, 2008
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Sen. John McCain shake hands at the conclusion of the Republican Presidential Debate in Boca Raton. Without aggressive attacks from his rivals, Romney looked cool and confident.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, left, and Rep. Ron Paul, center, listen to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee answer a question during Thursday's debate. The night had its share of smiles with light ribbing rather than an antagonistic debate.
[Palm Beach Post]
Florida Atlantic University students and Ron Paul supporters Yumna Alarashi, left, and Jennifer Abrams try to build support for their candidate Thursday near the FAU campus.
BOCA RATON -- So much for the widely anticipated Republican Brawl in Boca.
The final faceoff before Florida Republicans weigh in on the presidential race mostly looked like a gentlemen's supper meeting with light ribbing rather than an antagonistic debate.
A batch of public opinion polls released in the last 24 hours had shown a cluster of contenders near the top, fueling speculation that this final meeting among the candidates would send sparks flying.
Rudy Giuliani, badly needing to regain some steam in this must-win state, tried to jab John McCain and Mitt Romney for not joining him in supporting a national catastrophic insurance fund to alleviate Florida's property insurance crisis.
But the Arizona senator and former Massachusetts governor calmly promised to work hard to bring relief to coastal states, without committing to anything specific.
"We're going to have to work together to create a program that gets people in high-risk areas insured," Romney said. "Now, I'm not in favor of saying that the people in Iowa should have to subsidize the people in Massachusetts or the people in Florida. That doesn't make a lot of sense."
Said McCain: "I'm confident we can do it together, working with the insurance companies, not setting up another huge federal bureaucracy, $200-billion which still nobody has said how you're going to pay for it."
Giuliani faced an awkward question himself when St. Petersburg Times editor, CEO and chairman Paul Tash asked Giuliani why he was airing Spanish language campaign ads while calling for immigrants to learn English as a requirement for citizenship. Tash read questions that had been submitted by Floridians.
The former New York mayor said English should be a requirement, but for people who speak both languages, "I'm very comfortable trying to reach them in both English and Spanish."
The 90-minute debate at Florida Atlantic University with questions from Tash and NBC's Brian Williams and Tim Russert came four days before Florida's crucial Republican primary, which stands to launch one of the candidates into "Super Tuesday" a week later with a giant shot of momentum.
With the field winnowed in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, it was the smallest Republican group to face off yet: Giuliani, McCain, Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
With the exception of Paul, the lone antiwar candidate, the Republicans stood by the decision to invade Iraq and used the issue as an opportunity to criticize Democrats for wanting to pull out.
Romney bashed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for suggesting Democratic pressure on Iraq helped improve conditions there.
"Look, the success over there is due to the blood and the courage of our servicemen and women, and to Gen. Petraeus and to President Bush," Romney said. "Not to Gen. Hillary Clinton."
Much of the debate centered on the economy, which has become the top issue for voters in Florida and across the country. All the leading candidates said they support the new bipartisan economic stimulus but all said it didn't go far enough in cutting taxes.
Paul said economic policy and foreign policy are intertwined.
"We're spending more than a trillion overseas maintaining this empire," he said. "We're literally spending ourselves into oblivion, but nobody here is willing to suggest that we cut anything overseas."
Huckabee said that he wondered whose economy would be stimulated by the current package aimed to kick-start the economy under consideration.
"One of the concerns that I have is that 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.
Florida's primary could well decide the Republican nominee and Thursday night's debate, sponsored by Leadership Florida, the Florida Press Association and the Florida Public Broadcasting Service, offered a final high-profile opportunity to change the landscape.
Giuliani, who has staked his candidacy on Florida , especially needed a lift.
A St.Petersburg Times/Bay News 9/Miami Herald poll released Tuesday showed McCain and Romney in a dead heat, with 25 percent and 23 percent support respectively, and Giuliani and Huckabee each with 15 percent. A Mason-Dixon poll released Wednesday had Romney leading with 30 percent, McCain 26 percent, Giuliani 18 percent and Huckabee 13 percent.
When asked by Russert about his sliding poll numbers in Florida, Giuliani compared himself to the underestimated New York Giants in the NFL and quipped of his rivals, "We've lulled them into a false sense of security."
Without aggressive attacks from his rivals, Romney looked cool and confident and sounded at times more like he was in a general election instead of a tough, unpredictable primary.
"The idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House with nothing to do is something I just can't imagine," Romney said to laughter.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Romney may be pumping as much as $40-million of his own money into the primary, but the former venture capitalist bluntly refused to say how much of his own money he is spending.
"We'll report that on the 31st of January as required by law and not a minute earlier," he told Russert.
That prompted Huckabee to suggest Romney's family would be better off if people voted for him: "If the country will elect me president they'll inherit a great president," Huckabee said, "and your boys will get your money too."
Times staff writer Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report.