Republican Presidential Candidates Hold First Debate
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KWAME HOLMAN: The 10 Republican candidates for president appeared together for the first time last night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
Earlier in the evening, they had met with former First Lady Nancy Reagan in a replica of her husband’s Oval Office, and they all made sure to invoke the legacy of the late president once they got on the stage.
RUDY GIULIANI (R), Former Mayor of New York: What we can borrow from Ronald Reagan, since we are in his library, is that great sense of optimism that he had.
FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R), Massachusetts: Ronald Reagan was a president of strength.
SEN. SAM BROWNBACK (R), Kansas: I believe in the Ronald Reagan principle.
FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Arkansas: What Ronald Reagan did was to give us a vision for this country.
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC Host: The candidates will have 60 seconds to respond.
KWAME HOLMAN: Moderator Chris Matthews of MSNBC peppered the candidates with questions, allowing rebuttals and some candidates to speak on longer than others. The 90-minute debate focused heavily on foreign policy, most specifically Iraq.
Arizona Senator John McCain used the opportunity to lash out at congressional Democrats, who he called “defeatist.”
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: When the majority leader of the United States Senate says we’ve lost the war, the men and women that are serving in Iraq reject that notion. When on the floor of the House of Representatives, they cheer — they cheer — when they pass a withdrawal motion that is a certain date for surrender, what were they cheering? Surrender? Defeat?
We must win in Iraq. If we withdraw, there will be chaos, there will be genocide, and they will follow us home.
KWAME HOLMAN: Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson outlined his plan for success in Iraq, which includes establishing regional governments and reallocating oil profits.
FORMER GOV. TOMMY THOMPSON (R), Wisconsin: If every man, woman and child is getting part of the oil proceeds, they’re going to have a vested interest in their country. They’ll be purchasing goods. They will be investing in small businesses. And they will be building the country on democratic grounds in Iraq.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Kansas Senator Sam Brownback added that Iraq, as the central front in the war on terror, can be saved only through regional diplomacy.
SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: There are a number of people that are with us, that work with us around the world, and also in the Islamic world. We’re partnering with a number of moderate Muslim regimes. And that’s something I think we need to convey into the Muslim world, as well, that these are groups, the al-Qaida group, the militant Islamic fascists, they’re trying to unseat moderate Muslim regimes.
Criticizing President Bush on Iraq
KWAME HOLMAN: The other candidates, however, took aim at the president's handling of the war. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee faulted the administration for mistakes at the outset.
FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Arkansas: Clearly, there was a real error in judgment, and that primarily had to do with listening to a lot of folks who were civilians in suits and silk ties and not listening enough to the generals with mud and blood on their boots and medals on their chest.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, who voted against the war authorization, said the country needed to avoid foreign conflict.
REP. RON PAUL (R), Texas: How did we win the election in the year 2000? We talked about a humble foreign policy, no nation-building, don't police the world. That is a conservative, it's a Republican, it's a pro-American, it follows the founding fathers, and, besides, it follows the Constitution.
KWAME HOLMAN: The candidates also took positions on domestic issues and fielded questions from viewers through the Internet. Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo took a get-tough approach on the issue of illegal immigration.
REP. TOM TANCREDO (R), Colorado: No more platitudes, no more obfuscating with using words like, "Well, I am not for amnesty, but I'm for letting them stay." That kind of stuff has got to be taken away from the political debate, as far as I'm concerned, so people can understand exactly who is where on this incredibly important issue.
KWAME HOLMAN: McCain countered with a push for comprehensive immigration reform.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: We have to secure our borders, but we also need a temporary worker program, and we have to dispose of the issue of 12 million people who are in this country illegally. This issue is an important and compelling one, and it begins with national security, but we also need to address it comprehensively.
Abortion and stem-cell research
KWAME HOLMAN: And all of the candidates were asked if it would be a good day for America if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion rights decision. Senator Brownback.
SEN. SAM BROWNBACK: It would be a glorious day of human liberty and freedom. I believe life is one of the central issues of our day, and I believe that every human life at every phase is unique, is beautiful, is a child of a loving God.
KWAME HOLMAN: Of the 10 candidates, only Mayor Giuliani equivocated.
RUDY GIULIANI: It would be OK.
CHRIS MATTHEWS: OK to repeal?
RUDY GIULIANI: It would be OK to repeal. It would be OK also if a strict constructionist judge viewed it as precedent.
KWAME HOLMAN: Giuliani elaborated when pressed.
RUDY GIULIANI: Ultimately, since it is an issue of conscience, I would respect a woman's right to make a different choice.
KWAME HOLMAN: Romney also was asked to explain his position, opposed to abortion. Romney admitted he supported abortion rights when he first ran for governor.
MITT ROMNEY: And when I ran for office, I said I'd protect the law as it was, which is effectively a pro-choice position. About two years ago, when we were studying cloning in our state, I said, "Look, we have gone too far." And I'm proud of that, and I won't apologize to anybody for becoming pro-life.
KWAME HOLMAN: And each candidate was asked if he supports federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Only Mayor Giuliani and Senator McCain said they did.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: This is a tough issue for those of us in the pro-life community. I would remind you that these stem cells are either going to be discarded or perpetually frozen. We need to do what we can to relieve human suffering. It's a tough issue. I support federal funding.
KWAME HOLMAN: Toward the end of the debate, MSNBC's Matthews asked a question that elicited looks of horror from all the candidates.
Would it be good for America to have Bill Clinton back living in the White House?
MITT ROMNEY: You have got to be kidding.
KWAME HOLMAN: These 10 candidates will meet again in two weeks at a debate in Columbia, South Carolina.