War, abortion dominate GOP debate

050307romney.jpgAlone among 10 Republican presidential contenders, Rudy Giuliani said in campaign debate Thursday night “it would be OK” if the Supreme Court upholds a 1973 abortion rights ruling. “It would be OK to repeal it. It would be OK also if a strict constructionist viewed it as precedent,” said the former New York city mayor, who has a record of supporting abortion rights.

His nine rivals agreed that it would be a great day if the court overturns the landmark ruling.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney acknowledged he had changed his mind on the subject when he began to delve into the issue of cloning. He said his position had once effectively been “pro-choice.”

But Giuliani hedged when asked about his present position.

“I think the Court has to make that decision and then the country can deal with it,” he said.

The issue of abortion looms large in the 2008 Republican presidential campaign as a wide swath of the party’s activists support the overturning of the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

Both Romney and Giuliani must persuade conservative voters they are ready to embrace that view — or else persuade them to overlook the issue in picking a candidate for the White House.

Alone among the top three contenders, Arizona Sen. John McCain has a career-long record of opposition to abortion.

Giuliani, McCain and Romney were the first among 10 equals on the debate stage at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library — the men with the most money and the best approval ratings in the polls more than eight months before the first 2008 national convention delegates are picked.

Other participants included Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas; former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, Jim Gilmore of Virginia, and Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, Duncan Hunter of California and Ron Paul of Texas.

There was no dissent about the importance of the U.S. military mission in Iraq.

McCain said the war effort is now on the right track, although he said that until recently, the war had been “terribly mismanaged” by the Bush administration. “Terribly mismanaged,” he repeated for emphasis.

“We should never retreat in the face of terrorism,” said Giuliani, adding, “terrible mistake.”

Romney also said the United States must support the government of Nouri al-Maliki in its efforts to combat terrorism.

“I want to get our troops home as soon as we possibly can, but at the same time we don’t want to get them out in such a precipitous way that we have to go back,” he said, warning that too hasty a departure could lead to chaos in the region.

The opening moments of the debate dealt with Iraq, and the calls for continuing the U.S. military operation contrasted sharply with last week’s debate among Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Then, eight presidential hopefuls called for an end to the military involvement that so far has claimed the lives of more than 3,300 U.S. troops.

Reagan’s widow, Nancy, attended the debate, listening as the men vying to become the nation’s 44th president said they were the rightful successors to her husband, the 40th.

Speaking of Iran, Giuliani said “they looked in Ronald Reagan’s eyes and in two minutes they released the hostages.” That was a reference to the U.S. hostages released from captivity on the day of Reagan’s inauguration in 1981.

He didn’t mention other hostages taken on Reagan’s watch — those seized in Lebanon and kept for years.

Romney invoked Reagan in discussing abortion rights. “I changed my mind. I took the same course that Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush” did, he said.

Romney and McCain squared off over terrorist leader Osama bin Laden without directly addressing each other. Last week, the ex-governor said, “it’s not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person” and advocated a broader strategy to defeat Islamic jihadists. McCain had called the comment “naive.”

Under questioning, Romney defended his comment, saying: “It’s more than Osama bin Laden. But he is going to pay and he will die.”

McCain shot back, saying bin Laden’s responsible for the deaths of thousands of innnocent Americans. “We will do whatever is necessary. We will track him down. We will catch him. We will bring him to justice and I’ll follow him to the gates of hell,” he said.

MSNBC and The Politico co-sponsored the debate, moderated by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.

Missing were three Republicans still weighing whether to run — Fred Thompson, the actor and former Tennessee senator; Newt Gingrich, the ex-House speaker from Georgia, and Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. They also weren’t slated to participate in two more debates — in South Carolina and New Hampshire — in the next month.

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