Public questions inspire combative GOP debate

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

In an animated, fast-paced debate marked by personal attacks between the candidates, Republican presidential hopefuls Wednesday night sparred over illegal immigration, torture, gun control, abortion -- and even whether the Bible should be taken literally.

The unconventional debate sponsored by CNN and YouTube featured often raw and emotional questions from the public, in the form of 33 videos. Questions came from a gay general from Northern California, a black father and son from Atlanta worried about crime, and a young white Texan asking the candidates for their views on flying the Confederate flag.

As the debate continued over two hours, the most frequent target was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has been a leader in the two states that loom largest in the early voting -- Iowa and New Hampshire.

Republican debate: An article in Thursday’s Section A on the Republican presidential debate said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had suggested that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was heartless for opposing college scholarships for immigrants. The exchange was over scholarships for illegal immigrants.

Romney was attacked from all sides, on multiple issues. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani accused him of employing illegal immigrants, while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee suggested that he was heartless for opposing college scholarships for immigrants. Sen. John McCain of Arizona faulted Romney for refusing to concede that an interrogation practice called waterboarding amounts to torture. And former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee -- via a campaign video -- chided the former governor for changing his position on abortion.

The combative tone, played out before an audience in St. Petersburg, Fla., was set quickly as Romney and Giuliani bickered over one of the most emotional issues in the 2008 presidential race: illegal immigration.

After Romney accused his rival of presiding over a city that protected illegal immigrants, Giuliani countered that Romney hired illegal immigrants to work at his home.

“At his own home, illegal immigrants were being employed -- not being turned in to anybody or by anyone,” Giuliani said.

Romney had hired a landscaping firm to work on his 2 1/2 -acre property in Belmont, Mass. The company reportedly used undocumented immigrants on the job.

Romney said he was not personally responsible. He called it “really kind of offensive” to suggest that if a homeowner hires a contractor and “if you hear someone with a funny accent, you as a homeowner are supposed to go out there and say, ‘I want to see your papers’?”

The moderator, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, broke with the video format at one point to question Giuliani about a report put out earlier in the day by online political news outlet Politico.

The article said that when he was mayor, Giuliani traveled to the Hamptons with a security detail at city expense. At the time, he was married but involved with another woman, Judith Nathan, who had a home in Southampton. (Giuliani has since divorced his wife and married Nathan.) Politico also reported that Giuliani’s administration billed tens of thousands of dollars in travel expenses to obscure city agencies.

In response to Cooper’s query, Giuliani said that there were threats on his life and that he was given round-the-clock protection.

“I had nothing to do with the handling of their records,” the former mayor said. “They were handled, as far as I know, perfectly appropriately.”

A tough moment for Romney came in an exchange with McCain over what constitutes torture. McCain was imprisoned and beaten by his captors during the Vietnam War.

Romney was asked about an interrogation technique called waterboarding, which simulates drowning. Since 2002, numerous media reports have said that the Bush administration approved “enhanced” interrogation techniques, including waterboarding.

Romney declined to answer whether waterboarding amounted to torture, saying it was not “wise” for a presidential candidate to discuss specific techniques.

At that, McCain said: “Well, governor. I’m astonished that you haven’t found out what waterboarding is.”

When Romney said he knew what it was, McCain said: “Then I am astonished that you would think such a torture would be inflicted on anyone . . . held captive, and anyone who could believe that that’s not torture. It’s a violation of the Geneva Conventions.” The audience applauded.

McCain had an equally pointed exchange with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who has emerged as a darling of the Internet, raising $4.2 million online on a single day this month.

Paul said that he wanted to save billions of dollars by bringing troops home from Iraq, a position at odds with McCain’s. McCain took him on, saying “we allowed Hitler to come to power with that kind of attitude of isolationism and appeasement.”

Paul replied that the “real question you have to ask is, why do I get the most money from . . . military personnel? So what John is saying is just totally distorted. He doesn’t even understand the difference between nonintervention and isolationism.”

A surprising attack came in the form of a candidate video. Thompson aired a campaign-style video that tried to put his rivals on the spot. It provided footage of Romney years ago saying that “abortion should be safe and legal” and of Huckabee, also much earlier, calling an income tax surcharge “acceptable” and a sales tax “fine.”

Romney replied: “On abortion, I was wrong and I changed my mind.” Huckabee responded that in his nearly 11 years as governor, he “cut 90 taxes.”

When CNN’s Cooper challenged Thompson on his intent with the video, Thompson answered with a sheepish grin, “Just want to give my buddies here a little extra airtime.”

Romney may have created a problem for himself in his answer to a question about gays in the military. He refused to disavow a decade-old comment that he wanted gays to openly serve in the military -- a position that may put him at odds with the social conservatives he is courting.

The question came from retired Brig. Gen. Keith Kerr of Santa Rosa, who introduced himself as a veteran of 43 years of service, a graduate of the Army War College, and “an openly gay man.” (He did not mention his work in support of Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign.) Kerr told the candidates, “I want to know why you think that American men and women in uniform are not professional enough to serve with gays and lesbians.”

Cooper then cited a comment Romney made in 1994 that he looked forward to the day when gays and lesbians could serve “openly and honestly” in the military. “Do you stand by that?” Cooper pressed.

“This isn’t that time,” Romney said. “This is not that time. We’re in the middle of a war.”

Cooper pressed again. “Do you look forward to that time, though, one day?”

Romney responded by saying he would rely on military advisors for guidance, adding: “My view is that at this stage this is not the time for us to make that kind of a change.”

A black man with his son at a gym in Atlanta asked via video what the candidates intended to do to fight “the war going on in your own country -- black-on-black crime.” After Romney answered by talking about the importance of mothers and fathers, Giuliani took an opportunity to compare his crime-fighting record in New York with Romney’s in Massachusetts.

“The governor has a mixed record in fighting crime,” Giuliani said. “For example, murder went up by 7.5%. Burglary went up. One other category of violent crime went up. Some categories of violent crime went down.”

Romney responded that he wasn’t a mayor and didn’t have a police chief. He added that he did what he could “as a state governor to improve our state police, to be able to put in place the DNA laboratory.”

This was the second CNN/YouTube debate of the campaign. Democrats debated under the format in July, watching videos that included a talking snowman worried about global warming. There were no snowmen this time, but the questions were just as freewheeling. One came from a man who held up a Bible and said: “Do you believe every word of this book?”

Giuliani hesitated a second before answering, prompting Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, to ask: “Do I need to help you out, mayor, on this one?”

Giuliani said he believed parts of the Bible were allegorical. Romney, asked if he believed every word, said, “Yeah, I believe it’s the word of God.”

Huckabee also said that parts of the Bible are allegorical, but added that it “has some messages that nobody really can confuse and [are] really not left up to interpretation: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”