Citing a recent decline in violence in Iraq, top Republican presidential candidates on Sunday offered gushing assessments of the U.S. war effort there -- an unusual moment in a GOP primary campaign that for months usually has stepped gingerly around the Bush administration’s unpopular policies in that country.
The candidates’ comments, coming in a debate on the Spanish-language television network Univision, went further than even the White House and top military leaders have gone as they have watched civilian and military deaths ebb since President Bush launched a controversial U.S. troop “surge” strategy.
Until Sunday, only one candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, had emphasized his support for the troop increase, a stance that over the last year coincided with his fading status as a GOP front-runner.
“We are winning,” declared former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, whose candidacy has experienced a surge of its own in recent weeks into the top tier of GOP contenders.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee said the U.S. “must prevail” in the war, and added, “I agree with my colleagues. I believe that we are.”
Such praise has been rare over the last year from the Republican candidates, who have struggled to balance their desire to appear strong with the public’s disillusionment with the war and Bush’s policies.
The war is supported by the core conservative voters who will decide the Republican nomination. But the party’s midterm election losses last year and subsequent polls have suggested that the war is depleting the GOP’s traditional advantage on national security.
For months, the Democratic presidential candidates argued over who would end the war first and bashed the Bush surge as a betrayal of voters who rejected the war policies in the 2006 elections.
Sunday night’s exchange underscored how the debate had suddenly changed -- with leading Republican politicians embracing the war with unusually strong language and both parties confronting an unexpected twist.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, for example, said that the goal in Iraq should be a “victory for America.” The phrase was striking because Bush himself, who often touted the U.S. strategy for victory, recently dropped the word “victory” from his lexicon as part of an administration effort to avoid appearing to overstate progress.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also said that the surge was working. “We’re going to have stability and security there, and American lives will be saved by virtue of the extraordinary sacrifice of American servicemen,” Romney said.
For months, that kind of talk was coming only from McCain, whose candidacy seemed to be sinking as fast as Bush’s popularity and the public’s impression of the war. But on Sunday the Arizona senator seemed to enjoy the company, noting that even the Democratic candidates had scaled back their criticisms of the troop increase.
“I was the only one on this stage that said we have to pursue a new strategy that [former] Sen. [John] Edwards and others used to call the McCain strategy and the McCain surge. They don’t do that anymore,” McCain said, adding later: “Now we have a successful strategy.”
The exchange on Iraq came in a largely tame encounter between seven of the eight GOP candidates. Not only did they refrain from attacking each other, but they didn’t even mention their favorite nemesis: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner.
In ignoring Clinton, the Republicans might have been acknowledging her narrowing lead in the polls over her chief Democratic rivals. Or they might have taken into account the results of a recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center indicating that Clinton is a popular figure among Latino voters, millions of whom were expected to watch the Univision debate.
The top candidates, whose words were translated simultaneously into Spanish, stuck to their hard lines on illegal immigration but offered some nuance tailored for the Univision audience. Both Huckabee and McCain called for compassion for illegal immigrants.
Giuliani, who has been accused by immigration advocates of transforming his once-liberal views to more closely match the tough rhetoric of his party, seemed to leave the door open to a path for legalization for illegal immigrants in the U.S.
“The people that come forward can sign up,” Giuliani said, proposing that they be assigned tamper-proof identification cards. “They can pay taxes, and then the people who don’t are the people who are really the cause of concern. Those people should be expelled from the United States if they don’t already leave.”
Gone on Sunday was the nasty row between Giuliani and Romney. Two weeks ago, in the CNN-YouTube debate, Romney assailed Giuliani for turning New York into what he called a “sanctuary city,” while Giuliani attacked Romney for hiring a landscaping firm that uses illegal immigrants.
More than 4 million watched the Democratic debate on the Spanish-language network in September. The GOP encounter was highly anticipated because all of the candidates except for McCain initially refused to attend. And most of the top candidates courted conservative voters in part by opposing legislation that would have created a path to citizenship for 12 million illegal immigrants -- setting off a debate that has sparked mass demonstrations and prompted organizations such as Univision to launch voter registration drives.
The campaign’s most fervent opponent of illegal immigration, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, skipped Sunday’s forum, saying he was opposed to the Spanish-language format.
Thompson at one point seemed to poke fun at the debate and its moderators, Univision anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas. When Salinas drew applause from the audience at the University of Miami by asking about government policies that split illegal immigrant parents from their U.S. citizen children, the former Tennessee senator quipped sarcastically: “Congratulations. That’s the first question that’s got applause tonight, so it must be a very good one.”
Thompson did not answer the question.