Clash of the schoolyard bullies

Sunday’s GOP Presidential candidate debate was more of a free-for-all than a discussion of the issues as participants attacked each other, Hillary Clinton, and anything Democratic.

Then they argued among themselves over who is, or is not, a real conservative.

With the rabid right wing of the Republican Party threatening to bolt and back an as-yet unnamed third party candidate, the GOP Presidential wannabes behaved like a group of schoolyard bullies, each trying to claim they were tougher than the others.

It came off as childish, immature, and foolish.

Reports The Associated Press:

Republican front-runners Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney defended their conservative credentials in the face of pointed attacks from campaign rivals Sunday night in the most aggressive debate to date of the race for the White House.

“You’ve just spent the last year trying to fool people about your record. I don’t want you to start fooling them about mine,” Arizona Sen. John McCain bluntly told Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.

Former Sen. Fred Thompson made Giuliani his target, saying the former New York mayor supported federal funding for abortion, gun control and havens for illegal immigrants.

“He sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues,” added Thompson, referring to the New York Democrat who leads in the polls for her party’s presidential nomination.

The clashes in the early moments of a 90-minute debate prompted former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to say he wanted no part of a “demolition derby” with others of his own party. “What I’m interested in is fighting for the American people.”

Whatever their disagreements among one another, the eight rivals agreed on one issue. They took turns criticizing Clinton, the Democratic front-runner.

Asked whether she was fit to be commander in chief, Romney replied, “I’d vote no.”

Giuliani said he agreed with one thing the former first lady said recently. “I have a million ideas. America cannot afford them all,” he quoted her as saying as laughter filled the debate hall. “I’m not making it up.”

McCain said Clinton had recently tried to spend $1 million on a Woodstock Museum, commemorating perhaps the most famous counterculture event of the 1960s.

“Now my friends I wasn’t there. I’m sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event,” he said.

“I was tied up at the time,” he deadpanned, and the audience rose to applaud the reference to the five and a half years McCain spent as a prisoner of war during Vietnam.

The debate was the first since Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas dropped out of the race, winnowing the field. The remaining rivals stood on a stage at a resort 10 miles from Walt Disney World, fielding questions at an event broadcast by Fox News Channel.

The leadoff Iowa caucuses are scheduled for Jan. 3, 2008, for Republicans. In their most recent debate, Oct. 9, Giuliani and Romney swapped charges with each other, vying for primacy in the race.

This time they largely ignored each other. Instead, Giuliani’s lead in the nation polls, as well as Romney’s perceived strength in early voting states, made them obvious targets for McCain and Thompson.

The first question went to Giuliani, asked whether he was more conservative than Thompson. “I can’t comment on Fred,” the former mayor said.

He then added that he had brought down crime, cleaned up Times Square, cut taxes and eliminated the city’s deficits. “I think that was a pretty darned good conservative record,” he said.

Giuliani took a more conservative position on gay marriage than he has thus far, saying he would support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage if states begin to legalize it.

Giuliani lived with an openly gay couple after separating from his second wife, Donna Hanover, and one member of the couple said at the time that Giuliani promised to marry them if gay marriage was ever legalized.

Attacked by the former Tennessee senator moments later, Giuliani fired back at his antagonist. “Fred has problems, too,” he said. He said Thompson was the “single biggest obstacle” in the Senate to legislation limiting the ability of individuals filing lawsuits to recover unlimited damages.

“He stood with the Democrats over and over again” on the issue, Giuliani added.

Thompson said he believed states should decide whether to limit lawsuits in their own states.

Republicans in Congress tried for years to pass legislation that would cap damages in lawsuits, but never succeeded before losing their majority to Democrats in 2006.

Romney was asked about McCain’s earlier claims that he had shifted positions on a number of issues to appeal to conservative Republicans.

The former Massachusetts governor responded that he was proud of his record, particularly since the state had an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature. “I fought to make sure we kept our taxes down. I fought for pro-growth strategies. I cut taxes,” he said.

Moments later, though, McCain personally turned on Romney.

“Governor Romney, you’ve been spending the last year trying to fool people about your record. I don’t want you to start fooling them about mine,” he said.

Saying he would run on his record as a conservative, McCain added, “I don’t think you can fool the American people. I think the first thing you’d need is their respect.”

The Washington Post version:

The leading Republican presidential candidates staged their most contentious and personal debate of the long campaign season here Sunday night, clashing sharply over abortion, immigration, tort reform and their readiness to challenge Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in a general election.

The debate’s opening minutes included a series of personal exchanges that illustrated the growing stakes in the nominating battle and set the tone for the 90-minute encounter. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney were quickly put on the defensive, fending off criticism leveled by former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.), who questioned their conservative credentials.

Thompson raked Giuliani for having supported federal funding of abortion, voting for the reelection of Democrat Mario Cuomo for governor in 1994, backing gun control and making New York a sanctuary city for immigrants.

“He sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues,” Thompson said.

Giuliani then jumped on Thompson, attacking his record in the Senate of opposing GOP-sponsored legislation to limit costly lawsuits. “Fred was the single biggest obstacle to tort reform in the United States Senate,” he said. “He stood with Democrats over and over again.”

One of the most personal attacks came when Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) joined the fray early in the debate, taking umbrage at Romney’s recent statement that he speaks for the “Republican wing” of the Republican Party. “Governor Romney, you’ve been spending the last year trying to fool people about your record,” McCain said. “I don’t want you to start fooling them about mine. I stand on my record. I stand on my record of a conservative.”

Thompson drew one of the toughest questions of the night in the debate’s closing minutes, when he was asked by Fox News’s Wendell Goler about his sometimes languid pace on the campaign trail. Asked about criticism that he was lazy, Thompson rolled through a lengthy r¿sum¿ that includes becoming an assistant U.S. attorney at 28, serving as counsel on the Watergate committee at 30, winning election to the Senate twice and helping shepherd Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. through the confirmation process in 2005.

“If a man can do all that and be lazy, I recommend it to everybody,” he said to laughter and applause.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who has been crowding his way into the top tier of the race, stood by throughout the early exchanges, then chided the others for attacking one another, saying Americans are “looking for a presidential candidate who’s not so interested in a demolition derby against the other people in his own party.”

Reuters’ take:

The top Republican White House contenders battled on Sunday over who was the better conservative, with Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney defending their records and views on social issues from strong attacks.

In a debate in the election swing state of Florida, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson accused Giuliani of being out of step with the conservative values of the Republican Party and Arizona Sen. John McCain attacked Romney’s conservative credentials.

“Governor Romney, you’ve been spending the last year trying to fool people about your record. I don’t want you to start fooling them about mine,” McCain said. “I stand on my record of a conservative.”

Thompson, a latecomer to the race who is chasing Giuliani in national opinion polls, said the former New York mayor’s support for abortion rights and gun control put him in a league with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, a New York senator.

“I simply disagree with him on those issues, and he sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues I just mentioned,” he said.

Giuliani said he cut taxes, created budget surpluses and lowered the crime rate in a largely Democratic city. “I think that was a pretty darn good conservative record,” he said.

He turned the tables on Thompson by challenging his failure in the Senate to support capping damages in lawsuits.

“Fred was the single biggest obstacle to tort reform in the United States Senate. He stood with Democrats over and over again,” Giuliani said.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee likened the freewheeling exchange between the top contenders to “a demolition derby.”

CLINTON ATTACKED

Giuliani leads the Republican presidential field in national opinion polls ahead of the 2008 election, with Thompson running second.

But Romney leads polls in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, which kick off the state-by-state nominating race and often give a jolt of national momentum to the winners.

Romney defended his record as Massachusetts governor and his conversion in recent years to becoming an abortion rights opponent, and said he cut taxes and reduced budgets in a heavily Democratic state.

“I was fighting against the liberal lion in perhaps the toughest state in America,” he said.

Most of the Republicans took shots at Clinton, who leads the Democratic presidential field in national opinion polls and is a frequent and popular target of Republican critics.

Romney questioned the former first lady’s experience and said she was not qualified to be commander in chief of the U.S. military. “She hasn’t run a corner store. She hasn’t run a state. She hasn’t run a city,” he said.

“There’s nothing funny about Hillary Clinton being president,” said Huckabee, who finished a close second to Romney on Saturday in a straw poll of social and religious conservatives at a conference in Washington.

“If she’s president, taxes go up, health care becomes the domain of the government, spending goes out of control, our military loses its morale,” Huckabee said.

On foreign policy, McCain and Giuliani said they were concerned about the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the United States needed to renew efforts on missile defense and building relations with Eastern Europe.

“This is a dangerous person, and he has to understand that there’s a cost to some of his actions,” McCain said, adding that as president he would make sure missile defense systems were placed in eastern Europe despite Putin’s objections.

Giuliani said the answer was for the United States to build a “very, very strong military that no other country on earth would ever consider challenging.”

The debate in Florida, an even more influential state in the nominating race after moving up the date of its primary to late January 2008, concluded a weekend convention of about 3,000 Florida Republican Party activists.