Republican presidential contenders voiced support for the Iraq war Wednesday night despite a warning from anti-war candidate Ron Paul that they risk dragging the party down to defeat in 2008.
“Even if we lose elections, we should not lose our honor,” shot back former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, “and that is more important than the Republican Party.”
Huckabee was in the majority, Paul very much in the minority on a University of New Hampshire debate stage when it came to the war. The politically unpopular conflict has emerged as the dominant issue of the 2008 race for the White House.
The issue flared near the end of a 90-minute encounter in which all eight men on stage welcomed former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson to the race with barbed humor and pointed advice.
“This is a nomination you have to earn,” said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. “Nobody’s going to give it to you. Nobody’s going to grant it to you.”
The debate unfolded several days before Gen. David Petraeus is scheduled to deliver an assessment of President Bush’s wintertime decision to commit 30,000 additional combat troops to the war.
Sen. John McCain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Giuliani all stressed support for the war, at times even competing to show their commitment.
“The surge is apparently working,” said Romney, referring to the increase in troops.
That brought an instant rebuke from McCain, who said, “The surge is working, sir, no, not apparently. It’s working.”
Alone among the contenders, Paul, a veteran Texas congressman with a libertarian streak, made the case for withdrawing troops. That drew a sharp challenge from Chris Wallace, one of the debate questioners, who asked whether the United States should take its marching orders from al-Qaida.
“No! We should take our marching orders from our Constitution,” Paul shouted back, pointing his pen at Wallace for emphasis. “We should not go to war without a declaration” by Congress.
Occasionally interrupted by applause, Paul doggedly stuck to his point. “We have lost over 5,000 Americans over there in Afghanistan, in Iraq and plus the civilians killed,” he said during his exchange with Huckabee.
“How long — what do we have to pay to save face? That’s all we’re doing, is saving face. It’s time we came home,” Paul said.
There was no debating whether it was important to cut taxes and spending, although McCain and Giuliani defended their refusal to sign a pledge not to raise taxes.
“I stand on my record and my record is 24 years of opposing tax increases,” said McCain.
Giuliani said he had a strong record of cutting New York City taxes. “I only think a man or woman running for president ought to take one pledge and that is a pledge to uphold the United States Constitution.
The debate ranged over familiar issues, and each of the men on stage looked for moments to appeal to their target constituents.
Huckabee, eager to win the support of social conservatives, said he supports a “human life amendment” to outlaw abortion.
By contrast, Giuliani supports abortion rights and Romney favors allowing states to decide on their own whether to permit or ban them.
Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California called for the resignation of Sen. Larry Craig, the Idaho Republican who pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in an airport men’s room in an undercover police operation.
“It’s important that the party stand for family values,” said Brownback, although as recently as last week, he pointedly avoided recommending that Craig step down.
Brownback also drew boos from the audience when he called for passage of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. “I understand there is a divided audience,” he said.
Giuliani responded to questions about his personal life by confessing to imperfections.
“I’m running as a human being who has been very successful as a leader,” he said.
Giuliani’s son has said he didn’t speak to his father for some time. Giuliani and their mother, Donna Hanover, had a nasty and public divorce while Giuliani was New York’s mayor, and he has since remarried.
The debate occurred roughly four months before New Hampshire holds the first primary of the 2008 race.
Thompson clearly hoped to upstage the event — airing the first advertisement of the campaign on Fox News during a commercial break, and formally announcing his candidacy on NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” after the debate.
He was not disappointed. Brit Hume, the debate moderator, opened up by asking each of the eight candidates to respond to the newcomer’s presence.
“I was scheduled to be on Jay Leno tonight, but I gave up my spot to somebody else because I’d rather be here in New Hampshire,” joked Huckabee.
“Why the hurry? Why not take some more time off?” Romney said humorously.
The war was a recurrent theme for the debate, in which New Hampshire voters outside the hall were allowed to pose questions to the candidates.
One man, Mark Riss, chastised Romney for comparing the service of men who have fought in Iraq with his own sons’ support for his campaign.
“I know you apologized a couple of days later … but it was wrong sir, and you never should have said it,” Riss said.
“Well, there is no comparison, of course,” Romney agreed.