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South Carolina GOP Debate


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UPDATED - Full Debate Wrap-Up From Bill Bradley: The moderators asked short, well-researched questions that weren't designed to draw attention to themselves. As entertaining as I find Chris Matthews to be, while he moved the Reagan Library debate along, he also obscured some of the candidates themselves.

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May 15, 2007 - 11:35 pm

It was a brisk debate. Here’s a brief take on its second half, with an overall view coming tomorrow.

The hoped for direct engagement between the two side by side leading candidates on the stage, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, never occurred. There was some sniping between McCain and Mitt Romney, but the sharpest conflict turned out to be a great set-up for Giuliani, who was still struggling some with questions about his past liberalism and present support for the pro-choice position on abortion.

The second half of the debate centered on challenges to the candidates on some of their key policy positions, and then on their response to a hypothetical terrorist crisis.

Giuliani, as I mentioned, was challenged as a closet liberal, for his support of gay rights, pro-choice, and even arch-liberal Mario Cuomo for governor of New York in 1994. He countered that he was, in the view of George Will, the most conservative New York mayor in 50 years. Then he tried to turn it, saying that he is the best chance to win a general election, that he can beat Republican bete noire Hillary Clinton (who is nowhere near being the Democratic nominee yet), and that he is the one who has already shown he can lead in the war on terror.

John McCain, who has a more consistently conservative record of the two, said the key is who is best to lead against radical Islamic extremism, citing his knowledge of the military and long experience in the Senate and the Navy.

Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, wouldn’t apologize for raising taxes to build roads, noting that it was widely supported in his state.

Mitt Romney, not surprisingly, was hit for his past strong support for gay rights (he said in the ’90s that he would be a better friend of the gay rights movement than Ted Kennedy) and the pro-choice position on abortion. He countered that he had stood up in Massachusetts for life, traditional marriage, the death penalty, and abstinence.

Sam Brownback was hit for opposing the Iraq surge strategy and for backing a more liberal policy on immigration while calling himself Reaganesque. He countered that Reagan today would pull the country together on Iraq, and had supported amnesty on immigration, which he does not.

Tommy Thompson was hit for his backing of stem cell research. He said that the research shows great promise.

Giuliani said, somewhat ruefully, that he expects his position on abortion to attract attention. As it has ever since the debate on May 3rd, when he seemed quite diffident about the fate of Roe v. Wade, one way or the other. Personally, he said, he hates abortion but supports choice. When asked if that was like hating slavery but letting people own slaves, he not surprisingly disagreed. Millions of people of good conscience, he said, make a different choice. We have to keep government out of people’s personal lives, and must respect other people’s views. The key, he said, is to figure out how to reduce abortion and increase adoptions.

Asked how he would explain his hard line pro-life position to a rape victim impregnated by her rapist and forced to give birth to a resulting child, Brownback acknowledge it would be a very difficult situation. But for him, the question is this, is this child a person? If so, then it is entitled to life. Abortion is a procedure. This is a life. A beautiful child of a loving god.

Romney, it was noted, had said he was once pro-choice because of the bad experience of a relative. What would he say to to another such person if his appointee to the Supreme Court tipped the balance against abortion? Roe v. Wade, he replied, cheapened life. People must make the decision, not the court.

Listening to all this, anti-illegal immigration crusader Tom Tancredo got off a great line: I trust conversions on the road to Damascus, not the road to Des Moines.

Asked about his support for what the questioner called amnesty for illegal immigrants, McCain said he’s never supported amnesty and never would. People expect us to solve problem, he said, and we are close to bipartisan agreement to secure borders, establish a temporary worker program, and address the 12 million illegal immigrants already here. The would-be terrorist attackers of Fort Dix had expired visas, they did not come across our borders. McCain denied stepping away from issue, saying he is still heavily engaged, noting that over half the illegal crossings come through his state of Arizona.

Romney was confronted with a statement of his from last year in which he seemed to say that illegal immigrants already here can apply for legal status. He replied that McCain would give special treatment to those already here.

McCain, taking a shot at Romney, said he’s been consistent on campaign reform and abortion. I don’t change on even numbered years or for different offices I may be running for, he noted.

Giuliani was confronted with his past statement when running New York, that if you come here illegally and work hard, you’re what we want in this city.

Giuliani used humor to deflect, thanking Tancredo for saying he is soft on anything. The answer on immigration, he said, is tamper proof ID cards and fast databases, saying he has more experience with security than anyone on the stage, from running New York City to being a top official in the Department of Justice. We have to fix the problem, he said, so there is no giant underground for terrorists to hide in.

Then Ron Paul offered up the biggest set-up since the Olympic volleyball tournament, saying that 9/11 occurred because of how America conducts itself in the Middle East.

Giuliani, who was next, leaped all over that. That is a simply extraordinary statement that we invited 9/11 because we were attacking Iraq, he said. I’ve never heard it before and I have heard absurd statements. I ask him to withdraw the comment and apologize for it.

Which of course Paul would not do. I believe CIA is correct, he said, when they teach about blowback. Our blowback from the installation of the Shah of Iran in 1953 was the taking of hostages from our embassy in Tehran in 1979. We can’t do whatever we want around the world without consequence. What would we think if they did that to us?

Giuliani wanted another 30 seconds, but didn’t get them.

The subject was changed and handed off to McCain. What about the Confederate flag flying in front of South Carolina buildings, a question which drew boos from the audience? McCain said his support in 2000 was one of the worst examples of his political cowardice. After long negotiation, he noted, the flag doesn’t fly on top of the capital, it flies in front of it. Almost all parties believe a reasonable solution. I was wrong when I said it was state issue in 2000, he said, and I think it’s time we all moved on as this is a settled issue in South Carolina, drawing a big burst of applause.

Then the debate turned to a terrorist crisis in real time, with a scenario that could have been drawn from the hit series “24″, in which several successful attacks have occurred in the US and some suspects are now in hand

How aggressively should they be interrogated?

McCain said he would take responsibility for aggressive interrogation if he knew the information was available. But he said that torture does not gain more than what we lose. It’s not about the terrorists but about us. What kind of country we are. The more pain that is inflicted, the more they tell us what we want to know. If we agree to torture, we do ourselves great harm in world.

Others disagreed, as a questioner noted that some top CIA officials say that the most valuable intel can come from torture.

Giuliani said I would tell our people in Guantanamo to use every method they can think of. But they shouldn’t torture. I would tell them to do everything they can think of.

Romney said the key is prevention of terrorist attacks. I’m glad they’re at Gitmo, he said, where they have no access to the lawyers they get here. With a ticking bomb, the president must make the call. Enhanced interrogation techniques must be used. Not torture but enhanced techniques. The moderator clarified that enhanced techniques include so-called waterboarding.

Then the scenario advanced, with the president learning that a country had harbored the terrorist training camps. (Which actually was part of the plot on this season’s “24″.)

Tommy Thompson said that if there is good intel about the camps, he would invoke the Reagan policy of trust but verify. And then go in with all power necessary.

Brownback was asked if he would go to the UN first or just move on the intel? I wouldn’t go to the UN, he said. Is our primary concern American lives or our perception in the world? Everything must be done in our power to protect American lives.

Duncan Hunter said he would have a one minute conversation with the Secretary of Defense, telling him to get and verify the hard intel in an hour, then execute with special ops.

John McCain returned to the question of torture. Are enhanced techniques torture? Yes. He noted a sharp division in the debate between those who have served in the military and those who haven’t. If we do it, what happens to our people when they are captured? Veterans, he said, from top generals on down, support my position and I’m glad of it.

Tancredo said to applause, I’m looking for Jack Bauer (the hero of 24) at this time. When we go under, Western civilization goes under.

After that, there wasn’t much time left, and only a few interesting questions were posed before the debate simply ran out of time, with no closing statements.

The 10 of you, noted one of the moderators, could be members of same white male Republican country club. What does that say about the Republican Party?

That went to former national party chairman and Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore. He said he’d worked hard as party chairman to reach out to communities. There will be minorities running in the future. People have to judge those who stood up to run this time for president.

Romney was reminded of his reputation as “Flip Flop Mitt.” Told that he says he changes positions because he is “learning from experience,” he was asked to point to something that he changed his position on to a stance that wasn’t more popular with Republican base voters.

He replied that the issue was the No child left behind education program pushed through by President George W. Bush. I fought against the teachers unions, he said. I like testing in schools. The great civil rights issue of our time is what goes on in schools in the inner cities where kids don’t get education. He said he was proud he supported President Bush.

Then the debate just ran out of time.

*** [Bill's Halftime Report Below] ***

There is a fundamental problem with the format of 10 candidates and only 90 minutes. It is hard to focus. Very hard for a candidate to win, but a candidate can definitely lose.

Giuliani and McCain are side by side. Many are anticipating some direct engagement. None so far between the two leading candidates, but this debate is crisper than the Reagan Library affair on May 3rd, with the moderators grabbing less attention for themselves.

Some key questions have emerged:

Q. Why should we continue in Iraq when needed reform after reform never materializes from the Iraqi parliament?

McCain: If we don’t fight them there, they’ll follow us home. We must succeed and cannot fail. I will be the last man standing if necessary.

Q. Are there circumstances in which you would withdraw from Iraq without victory?

Romney:
I won’t project failure. There is a global jihadist effort, to replace much of the world with a caliphate. Enormous impact on global struggle.

Q. You said that congressional Republicans wanting to see measurable progress by September are “fundamentally irresponsible” because that sets a deadline.

Giuliani: John McCain is correct. They do want to follow us here and have followed us here. Just last week, there was nearly a terrorist strike on Fort Dix. The enemy is planning to attack America all over world and inside this country.

Ron Paul notes that the 77% of Republicans opposing a time-line for withdrawal represent a shrinking party in the wake of Iraq problems, with over 60% of the country in favor of withdrawal. Reagan, he says, had said he would never turn tail in Lebanon, then pulled out after the death of 241 Marines, saying in his memoirs that he had underestimated the irrationality of Middle Eastern political dynamics.

Q. Would you deliver a preemptive strike on Iran if its nuclear weapons program proceeds?

Jim Gilmore: We have no choice other than to join up with other countries for serious sanctions against Iran. We have to have an honest discussion with the American people over the consequences of an Iranian nuclear weapon. A tough decision has to be made. We may have to in fact strike.

Q. Mitt Romney, called by some a flip-flopper, is asked about changes on taxes.

Romney: I won’t raise taxes. I didn’t as governor of Massachusetts. Washington is broken. The government has to be reorganized.

Q. John McCain, you opposed the 2001 tax cuts, now you support them. Are you serious?

McCain: I didn’t say I was wrong. I opposed them because we didn’t rein in spending. The tax cuts increased revenues. Now spending is out of control. We lost the 2006 elections not because of Iraq, but because we let spending get out of control. We spent money like a drunken sailor though I never knew a drunken sailor with the imagination of my colleagues.

Q. Spending in New York rose even before 9/11.

Giuliani: Actually, spending decreased in comparison to population. I lowered taxes 23 times. All in a place where it’s hard to do it. Half of all federal employees will retire in the next 10 years. I commit to not filling half of those positions.

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