Tactics change in high-stakes N.H. debates

Times Staff Writers

Their critiques crackling with animosity, Republican presidential candidates took turns Saturday upbraiding one another -- and, much of the time, former New Hampshire front-runner Mitt Romney -- in a debate whose tension illustrated the grave stakes in Tuesday’s primary for many of the men on the stage.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, came under sequential fire from Arizona Sen. John McCain on his campaign ads, New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani on immigration, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee on his support for the war in Iraq, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson on government mandates, and, in a series of meandering commentaries on a host of subjects, Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

The sharpest exchanges came on immigration, when McCain braced Romney on his criticism of McCain’s immigration plan.

His voice icy, McCain turned to Romney and said: “It’s not amnesty. And for you to describe it as you do in the attack ads, my friend, you can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads, but it won’t be true.”


“I don’t describe your plan as amnesty in my ad,” Romney, a multimillionaire, replied. “I don’t call it amnesty.” The former governor is running an ad in New Hampshire against McCain that includes the words, “He wrote the amnesty bill that America rejected.”

Minutes later, McCain responded to a separate Romney claim that he had been misquoted on illegal immigration by alluding to Romney’s changes of position or nuance on several key issues, such as abortion rights. “When you change . . . positions on issues from time to time,” McCain said, deadpan, “you will get misquoted.”

The debate came two days after the Iowa caucuses upended the Republican contest by anointing Huckabee over Romney, who had long led in Iowa polls. That threw the race into New Hampshire, where Romney has been slumping in the polls and McCain, who won the state’s primary in 2000, has been rising. The two of them have bitterly disagreed over the last several days.

But the race is not limited to them, nor was the debate, which was nationally broadcast from St. Anselm College by one of its sponsors, ABC.

Though Huckabee’s prospects are a long shot in New Hampshire, he has performed under the bright lights since his Iowa victory, and his exchanges with Romney animated the initial part of the debate Saturday. Thompson, for his part, needs to continue to do well to fuel his campaign, which many thought would end in Iowa. Giuliani is seeking to keep his campaign moving until Florida’s Jan. 29 primary, where he hopes a win will propel him into the 24 state contests Feb 5. Both he and Thompson injected themselves into the debate regularly, often as foils to the more combative participants.

Paul at times dominated the debate, taking on all the candidates with his unorthodox views -- for a Republican -- on the war, which he argued has limited domestic achievements, and on capitalism.

“So,” a droll Thompson said to Paul at one point, as if restating Paul’s argument, “if we would stop printing so much money, we could get out of the war and provide healthcare to everybody.”

The debate was more informal and conversational than others in the last year. Rather than standing at lecterns, the candidates sat at tables.


With just six participants -- several candidates have abandoned the race, and ABC declined to invite Rep. Duncan Hunter of Alpine, who protested his exclusion -- the debate also lent itself to more frequent exchanges among the contenders.

Telling in the debate was the resurgence in both praise for President Bush and comments on Iraq. In forums last year, mentions of Bush were rare as the candidates tried to keep a distance from his faded poll numbers and Iraq. But with the buildup of American troops apparently trimming the violence in Iraq, the war was back on stage Saturday.

Moderator Charles Gibson, ABC News’ evening anchor, opened the debate by recounting a recent foreign-policy article by Huckabee in which he said the Bush administration’s Iraq policy reflected an “arrogant bunker mentality.”

After Huckabee deflected his criticism onto former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the other candidates defended Bush’s handling of the country’s security since the 2001 terrorist attacks. McCain noted his own early criticisms of Rumsfeld.


“I’m the only one here that disagreed at the time, and I’m the only one at the time that said we’ve got to employ a new strategy and outlined what it was,” he said, referring to his early support for additional troops. “The fact is, as we blame the president for the failed strategy, we should give him credit for changing the strategy.”

Romney took on Huckabee, who returned the favor.

“The president is not arrogant,” Romney said. “The president does not subject -- or is not subject to a bunker mentality. The president has acted out of his desire to keep America safe. And we owe him a debt of gratitude.”

At his turn, Huckabee quoted Romney as telling CBS’ “60 Minutes” that Iraq was “a mess” -- implying that Romney could not then turn around and criticize Huckabee’s comments.


“I supported the president in the war before you did,” Huckabee told Romney. “I supported the surge when you didn’t. I’m not a person who is out there taking cheap shots at the president.”

On another subject that has gotten more attention among Democrats this year -- healthcare -- McCain and Romney sparred over the power of pharmaceutical companies.

“Why shouldn’t we be able to re-import drugs from Canada?” McCain asked. “It’s because of the power of the pharmaceutical companies. We should have pharmaceutical companies competing to take care of our Medicare and Medicaid patients.”

“Don’t turn the pharmaceutical companies into the big bad guys,” Romney said.


“Well, they are,” McCain responded.

“No,” Romney replied. “Actually they’re trying to create products to make us well and make us better, and they’re doing the work of the free market. And are there excesses? I’m sure there are, and we should go after excesses. But they’re an important industry to this country.”

The candidates largely agreed on minimizing government’s role in controlling healthcare costs. “To go in the direction that the Democrats want to go . . . socialized medicine, is going to mean a deteriorated state of medicine in this country,” Giuliani said.

Romney touted the healthcare overhaul that he oversaw in Massachusetts. “We put in place a plan that gets every citizen in our state health insurance, and it didn’t cost us new money, and it didn’t require us to raise taxes,” he said.


But he was challenged over whether his national healthcare plan would include “mandates” to buy health insurance. Gibson noted that Romney’s healthcare plan when he was governor included a requirement that residents purchase health insurance and his federal plan does not.

“You backed away from mandates on a national basis,” Gibson said, introducing a word irritating to the conservatives Romney is courting.

“No, no, I like mandates. The mandates work,” Romney said.

Thompson interjected: “I beg your pardon. I didn’t know you were going to admit that. You like mandates.”


Unlike past debates, the subject of illegal immigration was left to near the end. It led to the tense exchanges between Romney and McCain, which were leavened when Giuliani reached back to a heralded moment in New Hampshire political history.

He said that if Ronald Reagan were present he would have seized the microphone to clear things up -- just as Reagan did in a 1980 debate that helped cement his landslide victory in the state’s primary that year.

“Ronald Reagan did amnesty. He actually did amnesty. I think he’d be in one of Mitt’s negative commercials,” said Giuliani, who like McCain has been criticized for his more moderate views on immigration. “And he is the hero of our party. None of us, none of us has a perfect record on immigration because this is a very complicated problem.”




Decker reported from Los Angeles and Finnegan reported from Manchester, N.H.