Republican presidential hopefuls, from left, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on stage before the Republican debate.
DURHAM — The eight declared Republican candidates for president debated the issues at the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore Center on Wednesday night, but the specter of former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who is expected to announce his candidacy today, hung heavy over the event.
Thompson contributed to that atmosphere by running a 30-second commercial on FOX News, the debate's primary sponsor, just prior to the event.
And the first question from Brit Hume to the candidates was about Thompson. Hume asked whether the former Tennessee senator, who is currently in second place in national polls, has done the right thing getting into the race later than the other candidates. While the candidates all welcomed him into the race, they all made light of his possible impact.
"I gave up my spot on Jay Leno tonight to someone else so I could be here with these fine people tonight," said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, referring to the fact that Thompson decided to go on that late night variety show rather than take part in Wednesday's debate.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul said he welcomed Thompson to the race because the former senator would dilute the vote for the other candidates, all of whom support the war in Iraq. Paul is for the withdrawal of American troops from that country.
"Maybe it's past his bedtime," said Arizona Sen. John McCain. "But the people of New Hampshire expect to see him." Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney jokingly asked, "Why the hurry? Maybe January or February would be a better time for him to get into the race."
Rudy Giuliani said he liked Thompson a lot and thought "he's done a pretty good job playing my part on 'Law and Order.'" Thompson's name came up again in the debate concerning a question to Giuliani on gun control. One of the moderators noted that the senator had said he didn't feel safe in New York City because of its gun laws. Giuliani responded that Thompson had been wrong based on FBI statistics. "New York was one of the safest cities in the United States about three or four years after I took office. I did the impossible."
The remainder of the debate was focused by moderators Fox News employees Hume, Chris Wallace and Wendell Goler on immigration (virtually every candidate supported increased control of illegal aliens), the war in Iraq (all but Paul, who supports immediate withdrawal, said U.S. troops can be drawn back into a support role based on the expectation that a report to Congress by top military officers will show the surge has worked), and taxes and spending (while Giuliani and McCain refused to sign a pledge to veto any tax increase, all the candidates opposed tax increases). Absent from the debate were the topics of health care, education and climate change. The only mention of health care, in fact, came from California Congressman Duncan Hunter in the context of how well the prisoners at Guantanamo are treated.
"They have better health care than most Americans," Hunter said in his argument against closing that prison.
The members of the UNH women's ski team, standing in line before the debate, said they wanted to hear the candidates' positions on global warming.
"I hope to hear something about global warming," said team member Kristen McNeill. "The snow is coming later each year and going
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, eager to win the support of social conservatives, said he supports a "human life amendment" to outlaw abortion. By contrast, Ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani supports abortion rights and former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney favors allowing states to decide on their own whether to permit or ban them.
SEN. LARRY CRAIG
Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California called for the resignation of Sen. Larry Craig, the Idaho Republican who pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in an airport men's room in an undercover police operation. "It's important that the party stand for family values," said Brownback, although as recently as last week, he pointedly avoided recommending that Craig step down.
Brownback also drew boos from the audience when he called for passage of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. "I understand there is a divided audience," he said.
Giuliani responded to questions about his personal life by confessing to imperfections. "I'm running as a human being who has been very successful as a leader," he said. Giuliani's son has said he didn't speak to his father for some time. Giuliani and their mother, Donna Hanover, had a nasty and public divorce while Giuliani was New York's mayor, and he has since remarried.
SUPPORTING IRAQ WAR
"The surge is working," Sen. John McCain said. "Not apparently, it's working . . . I want our troops home with honor, otherwise we will face catastrophe and genocide in the region." Giuliani also questioned the wisdom of talking openly about troop withdrawal while the country is at war. "When has a nation ever won a war when the constant discussion was: What kind of timetable are we going to set for our retreat?" Giuliani said.
LONE ANTI-WAR VOICE
Alone among the contenders, Ron Paul, a veteran Texas congressman with a libertarian streak, made the case for withdrawing troops. That drew a sharp challenge from Chris Wallace, one of the debate questioners, who asked whether the United States should take its marching orders from al-Qaida. "No! We should take our marching orders from our Constitution," Paul shouted back, pointing his pen at Wallace for emphasis. "We should not go to war without a declaration" by Congress.
CRITICISM FROM CROWD
One man, Mark Riss, chastised Romney for comparing the service of men who have fought in Iraq with his own sons' support for his campaign. "I know you apologized a couple of days later ... but it was wrong, sir, and you never should have said it," Riss said. "Well, there is no comparison, of course," Romney agreed.
— From wire reports