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In battle of words, GOP hopefuls keep gloves on

Times Staff Writer

The Republican Party’s nine declared presidential candidates eyed one another warily as much as they sparred during a muted televised debate Sunday in Iowa that featured some careful distancing from President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, and jabs at Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and other Democratic hopefuls.

The 90-minute session at Drake University in Des Moines, hosted by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, began with a withering exchange between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, then settled into a tamer discussion that rarely drifted far from party orthodoxy.

Brownback’s use of automated phone calls targeting Romney’s now-disavowed support of abortion rights set off the debate’s hottest moment.

“It’s truthful,” said Brownback, who called a strong antiabortion stance like his own “a core issue for our party.”

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Romney said the calls were “desperate” and “negative.” He added, “I get tired of people who are holier than thou because they’ve been pro-life longer than I have.”

There were other barbed moments. Romney fired a wellrehearsed line about Obama’s recent remarks that he would consider meeting with several notorious dictators and that he might take action against Al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan without approval from that nation’s leader.

“In one week he went from saying he’s going to sit down, you know, for tea with our enemies, but then he’s going to bomb our allies,” Romney mocked. “I mean, he’s gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week.”

Obama’s campaign was quick to return fire to Romney’s riff.

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“The fact that the same Republican candidates who want to keep 160,000 American troops in the middle of a civil war couldn’t agree that we should take out Osama bin Laden if we had him in our sights proves why Americans want to turn the page on the last seven years of Bush-Cheney foreign policy,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.

As the debate progressed, the GOP contestants appeared to shy away from taking one another on, concentrating instead on striking a chord with their audience of Iowans -- and dispirited Republicans nationwide -- by hewing closely to the party’s conservative stances on abortion and healthcare and tough talk on the war on terrorism.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll, released Sunday, suggests how unsettled Iowa’s Republicans are: Only 19% of likely caucus-goers say they are satisfied with the current field. Romney is the early front-runner with 26%; but for second place, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s 14% barely tops the 13% garnered by an undeclared candidate, former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.).

The Iowa caucuses -- precinct-level gatherings of voters, divided by registration, to elect delegates to party conventions -- are to be held Jan. 14.

The sense of division among the state’s Republicans over Bush’s Iraq policy surfaced in bursts of applause that greeted both maverick Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s call for U.S. troops in Iraq to “just come home” and El Cajon Rep. Duncan Hunter’s castigation of Democrats’ “rush for the exit.”

And as the GOP field sized up Bush’s legacy -- elaborating on their own proposals for Iraq, staking out positions on the spread of democracy and even on the dominant role played by Cheney -- most tried to leave some wiggle room.

Bush’s sagging approval ratings -- a recent Zogby survey gave him 24% -- have enabled the GOP candidates to gingerly declare their independence from the White House.

“I can tell you I’m not a carbon copy of George Bush,” said Romney, but added that he backs the president’s Iraq policy.

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On Iraq, all the contenders except Paul stuck with Bush on his gamble that a U.S. military buildup in Baghdad and other regions could turn around the struggling U.S. effort there.

But Brownback disagreed with Bush’s backing of Iraq’s fledgling national government, instead calling for a “three-state solution” similar to the loose federation of Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni states proposed by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, a Democratic presidential contender. Hunter and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado stuck to their hawkish stances, and Giuliani and Romney urged more faith in Bush’s troop buildup strategy, but former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee warned against staying in Iraq indefinitely, and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson criticized the performance of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, a fervent backer of the Iraq war, kept up a subdued but passionate argument on behalf of Bush’s policy. But McCain said he was disappointed with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, and said the Bush administration had “badly mismanaged” the war for four years. McCain also used a bit of wry humor to take a swipe at Cheney’s powerful role.

A vice president “has only two duties,” McCain said in answering a question about the role of the office. “One is to cast a tie-breaking vote in the case of a tied vote in the Senate. And the other is to inquire daily as to the health of the president.”

When Stephanopoulos pressed further, McCain allowed: “I would be very careful that everybody understood that there’s only one president.”

Brownback, normally an administration defender, was even more pointed in his answer. Cheney, he said, “came in with a lot of experience on defense, foreign policy issues. And I think the president over-relied on that.”

Referring to last week’s devastating bridge collapse in Minneapolis, the GOP rivals found common ground in insisting that increased private investment from cutting taxes would provide more money to repair the nation’s failing infrastructure. And they teamed up in turning their aim at the Democratic Party’s presidential field.

Though Giuliani agreed that taking on Al Qaeda unilaterally in Pakistan was “an option that should remain open,” he said Obama “didn’t express it the right way.”

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Giuliani, Brownback and Hunter slammed Democrats for pressing for healthcare policies that amounted to “socialized medicine.” Giuliani also took aim at the top three Democrats in the race -- Obama, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- saying they couldn’t match his executive experience as mayor of New York.

“They haven’t held an executive office in their lives,” he said. “They haven’t run a city, a state, a business. I think maybe they’ve run a club somewhere.”

steve.braun@latimes.com


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