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GOP candidates divided on detainees

Times Staff Writer

A major divide has emerged among the leading Republican candidates for president over a central question of the 2008 campaign: Whether to follow the Bush administration’s lead in pushing for aggressive treatment of detainees in fighting terrorism.

Tuesday’s GOP debate in South Carolina showcased those differences. Sen. John McCain of Arizona called for limits on interrogation techniques, whereas former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and onetime Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney aligned themselves more closely with President Bush’s approach.

Giuliani said interrogators should use “any method they can think of” and did not reject a moderator’s suggestion that his answer encompassed the controversial practice of “water-boarding,” which experts say simulates drowning. Romney proposed doubling the size of the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where terrorism suspects are held.

The issues arose in response to a hypothetical question about how each candidate would respond to the capture of suspects who may have knowledge of a coming attack on U.S. soil. But the exchange took place against a real-life backdrop, with Al Qaeda suspected of holding three U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

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The fissures introduced a new twist to a GOP contest that has focused largely on minor differences over waging the war in Iraq and questions about whether an abortion rights supporter such as Giuliani could win the party’s nomination.

“It’s tough for these candidates, because you don’t want to be rhetorically in favor of torture, which will turn a lot of people away in this country, Democrats and Republicans,” said Robert Ellsworth, a deputy Defense secretary under President Ford and a foreign policy advisor to 1996 GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole. “But you’ve got to be rhetorically in favor of wanting to do everything possible to thwart the coming disaster.”

The stakes seemed to be highest for McCain, who was once the clear front-runner but has struggled since he positioned himself as a staunch defender of Bush’s unpopular decision to ramp up troop levels in Iraq.

Tuesday’s comments by McCain, a former Navy pilot who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for 5 1/2 years, underscored long-running differences between him and Bush on tactics for interrogating terrorism suspects.

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The issue arose when the debate moderator, Fox News’ Brit Hume, laid out a scenario in which suspects had been caught attempting to carry out a terrorist attack. The question seemed tailor-made for a response on the importance of being tough on terrorists, but McCain gave a more nuanced reply colored by personal experience.

“The use of torture -- we could never gain as much as we would gain from that torture as we lose in world opinion,” he said. “We do not torture people. When I was in Vietnam, one of the things that sustained us as we went -- underwent torture ourselves -- is the knowledge that if we had our positions reversed and we were the captors, we would not impose that kind of treatment on them.

“It’s not about the terrorists; it’s about us,” McCain added. “It’s about what kind of country we are.”

Giuliani and Romney said they opposed torture. But Giuliani appeared to support the use of water-boarding, and Romney said he supported “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Both offered tough-sounding answers that drew enthusiastic applause from the Republican audience.

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“Enhanced interrogation techniques” refers to methods first adopted in 2002 that critics say amount to forms of torture that fall outside the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war.

Giuliani seemed to differ from McCain when he said: “I would tell the people who had to do the interrogation to use every method they could think of. It shouldn’t be torture, but every method they can think of.

“I’ve seen what can happen when you make a mistake about this, and I don’t want to see another 3,000 people dead in New York or anyplace else,” the former mayor said.

Giuliani in his campaign has emphasized embracing Bush’s aggressive anti-terrorism tactics and has attacked civil liberties advocates as promoting a pre-Sept. 11 mind-set.

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He elaborated on his debate remarks during a Wednesday conference call with bloggers. Giuliani said he would leave the distinction between enhanced interrogation techniques and torture to “the people who do it,” according to a report on the National Review Online. He described water-boarding simply as “aggressive,” the report said.

Another blogger on the call, University of Wisconsin law professor Ann Althouse, said Giuliani on Wednesday stressed his differences on the issue with McCain.

“His view is that we should figure out exactly where the line is and go right up to it,” Althouse wrote on her blog. “He specified that was more than McCain was willing to do.”

McCain aides acknowledged that the senator differed from the other GOP hopefuls on the issue, particularly on the question of torture.

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“There are enhanced techniques that I don’t think bother him, but water-boarding certainly does,” said McCain’s longtime advisor Mark Salter.

Salter said he watched Tuesday night as the audience remained silent throughout McCain’s “full and sophisticated, nuanced” answer. But he noted that the audience applauded after McCain said that most military leaders opposed torture.

“If you polled it, the Rudy-Romney position would probably be more popular with Republican primary voters,” Salter said. “But I think [McCain] can hold that position and get that respect. I don’t think anybody thinks he would be weak in the war on terror. We don’t have that problem.”

South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson said his state’s primary voters wanted to support a candidate who would embrace the Bush administration’s approach to fighting terrorism.

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“In the Republican Party base here, George W. Bush is overwhelmingly loved,” Dawson said.

But if any candidate has the license to take a more nuanced view on detainees, Dawson added, it’s McCain.

“If it would have been somebody else up there who had made that statement, you could have some criticism and maybe it would make a difference,” Dawson said. “But I don’t know anybody on that stage who has been through what John McCain has been through.”

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com


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