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GOP Hopefuls Tout Conservative Stances, Take Aim at Clinton in Debate

October 22, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, the latest on those Republicans who want to be president. Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Republican presidential candidates auditioned for Christian conservatives this weekend in Washington, looking to answer the big question of the race: Who’s the real conservative?

The most anticipated remarks at what the Family Research Council called the Value Voters Summit were from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), Former Mayor of New York: Isn’t it better that I tell you what I really believe instead of pretending to change all of my positions to fit the prevailing winds?

RAY SUAREZ: Giuliani’s views on abortion and gay marriage are contrary to those of Christian conservatives and much of the party’s base. He told the crowd that honesty was more important than changing his views to score political points.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, told the crowd he was one of them.

FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Arkansas: I come today not as one not who comes to you, but as one who comes from you. You are my roots.

RAY SUAREZ: Huckabee’s strong showing carried the straw poll convincingly among those in the room to hear him and gave him second place when combined with online balloting.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney finished first. Evangelical leaders have publicly debated whether a Mormon could carry Christian conservative voters.

They were followed by Texas Congressman Ron Paul; former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson; and Congressmen Duncan Hunter of California; and Tom Tancredo of Colorado. Giuliani finished just ahead of Arizona Senator John McCain, who came in last.

Sunday, the candidates met again in Orlando, Florida. Giuliani’s conservative credentials came under scrutiny again, under questioning from FOX News’ Chris Wallace.

CHRIS WALLACE, FOX News Anchor: Mayor Giuliani, Senator Thompson says that you’re soft on abortion, that you’re soft on gun control, and that you’ve never claimed to be a conservative. Who is more conservative, you or Fred Thompson?

RUDY GIULIANI: I brought down crime more than anyone in this country, maybe in the history of this country, while I was mayor of New York City. I brought down taxes $9 billion, cut them 23 times. I balanced the budget that was perennially out of balance, removed $2.3 billion deficits and replaced them with surpluses.

So I think that was a pretty darn good conservative record. I think, in every case, you can always find one exception or two to someone being absolutely conservative or absolutely this or absolutely that, but I think I had a heck of a lot of conservative results.

RAY SUAREZ: Thompson didn’t back down.

FORMER SEN. FRED THOMPSON (R), Tennessee: Mayor Giuliani believes in federal funding for abortion. He believes in sanctuary cities. He’s for gun control. He supported Mario Cuomo, a liberal Democrat, against a Republican who was running for governor, then opposed the governor’s tax cuts when he was there. So I simply disagree with him on those issues. And he sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues I just mentioned.

RUDY GIULIANI: You know, Fred has his problems, too. I mean, Fred was the single biggest obstacle to tort reform in the United States Senate. He stood with Democrats over and over again.

RAY SUAREZ: Romney was asked to defend his recent comment that he represented the Republican wing of the Republican Party.

FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R), Massachusetts: Now, I’m proud of my record, not just of the words, but of the record of the governor of Massachusetts. Like Mayor Giuliani, I had a tough state to be running in. I was a conservative Republican in a very Democrat state. My legislature, 85 percent Democrat.

We faced a $3 billion budget gap. We solved it without raising taxes, without adding debt. We solved the problem in health care in our state not by having government take it over, the way Hillary Clinton would, with private free-enterprise approaches. My approach, I believe, is best for our nation.

RAY SUAREZ: Romney then came under attack from McCain.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Governor Romney, you’ve been spending the last year trying to fool people about your record. I don’t want you to start fooling them about mine. I stand on my record. I stand on my record of a conservative…

… of a conservative, and I don’t think you can fool the American people. I think the first thing you’d need is their respect. And I intend to earn their respect, because they may not agree with me on a couple of issues, but they all know I’m telling them the truth and what I believe, and my steadfast positions one these issues for more than 20 years.

And I know that the transcendent challenge, I have the qualifications to lead, to grapple with, and to emerge victorious.

RAY SUAREZ: Huckabee, meanwhile, tried to remain above the fray.

FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Arkansas: I am more than content to let you let them fight all they want tonight, shed each other’s blood, and then I’ll be ready to run for president, because…

… I’m not interested in fighting these guys. What I’m interested in is fighting for the American people. And I think they’re looking for a presidential candidate who’s not so interested in a demolition derby against the other people in his own party.

RAY SUAREZ: There was one presidential candidate they all agreed on: Senator Hillary Clinton.

MITT ROMNEY: She hasn’t run a corner store. She hasn’t run a state. She hasn’t run a city. She has never run anything. And the idea that she could learn to be president, you know, as an internship just doesn’t make any sense.

RUDY GIULIANI: Quote Hillary Clinton, “I have a million ideas; America cannot afford them all.” I’m not making it up. I am not making it up.

One more time, “I have a million ideas; America can’t afford them all.” No kidding, Hillary. American can’t afford you.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: In case you missed it, a few days ago, Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock Concert Museum. Now, my friends, I wasn’t there. I’m sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event.

I was tied up at the time, but the fact is…

RAY SUAREZ: But the often-humorous Huckabee struck a serious tone when asked about a Clinton presidency.

MIKE HUCKABEE: Look, I like to be funny. Let me be real honest with you. There’s nothing funny about Hillary Clinton being president. Let me tell you why.

If she’s president, taxes go up. Health care becomes the domain of the government. Spending goes out of control. Our military loses its morale. And I’m not sure we’ll have the courage and the will and the resolve to fight the greatest threat this country’s ever faced in Islamofascism.

Defining conservatives

RAY SUAREZ: The Republican candidates are scheduled to meet again this Thursday in Iowa for a forum sponsored by the AARP and Iowa Public Television.

More now on the race toward the Republican nomination from Jim VandeHei, executive editor of, and Linda Douglass, contributing editor at National Journal.

A weekend arguing about who's more conservative, Linda Douglass, in 2007-'08, is that how you win the Republican nomination?

LINDA DOUGLASS, National Journal: Well, apparently it is, because the people who really identify with the Republican Party, the people who are going to be voting in the Republican primaries, are the conservatives.

They are the ones who, thanks to the efforts of Karl Rove, have been the most motivated voters in past elections. And it's clearly the consensus of all of these candidates that it is essential to move as far to the right, even if it means moving away from your own record, as possible to win these primaries.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Jim, who had a good shot at making that argument, "I'm the most conservative"?

JIM VANDEHEI, Executive Editor, Well, the truth is, they're all fundamentally flawed in the eyes of conservatives, and that's why this race is so wide open. Unlike the Democratic race, which really has come down to Obama versus Clinton, you could sketch out a plausible scenario where any of five candidates -- and I'd put Huckabee in that group right now -- could win the nomination.

And what they're all trying to do is lock down the conservative base. Well, they know they can't do that alone, so they're all trying now to make a twin argument: Yes, I'm conservative, but I'm also electable.

And the first person that can make that argument and make it in a compelling way, I think that they will be able to solidify their position with Republicans. But right now, none of them have done it.

You know, Rudy Giuliani can make the case that, yes, he's electable. They think that because he's moderate on social issues, he might appeal in places like California that are not traditionally in play, but he's a social liberal. And that's why, as the clip showed, when you're at the Values Summit, he gets barely any votes. Evangelical Christians, a lot of them, do not want to support him right now.

RAY SUAREZ: Can he make himself plausible to those voters? Even though he came in behind undecided in the Value Voters straw poll, he got a standing ovation, a very healthy applause all during his speech, as well.

LINDA DOUGLASS: Well, there was a lot of appreciation. We have reporters who follow him very closely and who were there and interviewed a lot of people in the crowd afterwards. And there was appreciation for the fact that he even came.

He didn't win converts necessarily, but one of the things Rudy Giuliani is trying to do in this race is redefine what being a conservative is. And a conservative, the way it is defined by Rudy Giuliani, starts with national defense, starts with, you know, standing up to the -- what they're calling the Islamofascist threat.

And so he's trying to do two things. He's trying to neutralize the hostility of the social conservatives by saying, "We may not agree, but I'll always listen to you," and he's trying to redefine what it is you have to say to be a successful Republican candidate in the general.

JIM VANDEHEI: That's a very powerful point to a lot of conservatives. Post-9/11, Republicans put a lot of stock in being a party of strength, the candidate that can project strength, and that's why Rudy Giuliani does quite well.

And it is a very open question right now: Is there a big group of people inside the Republican Party that are shifting to where they care more about, who can fight terrorism and who can solve the crisis in the Middle East more than they care who's going to cut down on abortions and gay marriage? There is some shift; I don't know how big that shift is at this point.

Huckabee as a serious contender

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Jim, Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, has been one of the most lightly funded candidates, but he's been, by all accounts, performing well in these candidates' forums and debates. He won the room at the Value Voters summit. He's rising in Iowa. Is he becoming a serious contender?

JIM VANDEHEI: We certainly have to take him seriously. He does quite well. Whenever he gets in front of a Republican audience and then you talk to that Republican audience, they like him. They authentically connect with him. They feel like he truly is a committed conservative.

Linda and I have talked about this before. I think his weakness is going to be that he does not necessarily project that image of strength. He does not have a big background in foreign policy. And he's not as articulate when it comes to talking about terrorism as maybe Giuliani is. And I think that is the weakness in that argument when he talks about being both conservative and electable.

LINDA DOUGLASS: Well, I think that Republicans, as Democrats this year, want a winner. I think that certainly it's clear that many of the Christian conservatives' hearts are with Mike Huckabee. He's very appealing to Christian conservatives. And he's very appealing to lots of people because he is so likable.

And his message is very interesting this year, because, if you remember the economics debate that the Republicans had, he was the one Republican on the stage who said there are lots of people out there who are hurting financially. I feel their pain. He is running as the real compassionate conservative in this race.

So it makes him a very interesting candidate with a new message, and certainly Republicans are trying to find a new message right now, but the hesitation that one encounters when talking to various Republicans is the fear that he just can't win, that he can't run a strong campaign, that he can't stand up to someone like Hillary Clinton, who's such an experienced campaigner, and that he can't raise the money.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Linda, let's shift gears to the Sunday debate in Florida, a tougher tone on the part of all the candidates, really taking, as we saw in the introduction, some pretty hard whacks at each other.

LINDA DOUGLASS: It was very interesting. I mean, this is the antithesis of what Ronald Reagan would have wanted, with his 11th commandment, "Thou shall not speak ill of another Republican."

And Thompson was, by far and away, Fred Thompson, the most aggressive in personally attacking Rudy Giuliani. And if one is on the receiving end of the press releases that come out of all the campaigns -- you would I'm sure agree with this -- one is bombarded by the Thompson campaign, attacking Giuliani, attacking Romney.

And it's a function of their being so closely knotted at the top, such a tight little group at the top with no clear frontrunner emerging, one would think. But, again, this is where Mike Huckabee might have done himself some good, because he was the one who wouldn't get into that fight.

Contrast between the candidates

RAY SUAREZ: Does Thompson have to do that in part because of the late entry, he's still establishing himself in the field and showing himself in a group of other candidates?

JIM VANDEHEI: Right. I mean, one of the reasons that politicians attack is to clarify. They want to be able to show sharp distinctions between themselves and the other candidates. And what he's trying to do is say, you know, I really am the committed conservative here. And he can only do that by taking down Giuliani.

I mean, oh, the joys of being a frontrunner. Everybody starts taking a whack at you, and they try to figure your weaknesses. Giuliani's are obvious, so everyone keeps hitting him on conservatism.

I think there's a danger here. I mean, beyond just appearing like there's in-fighting and you're violating the Reagan 11th commandment, the danger is, is that Republicans have not yet engaged in a very serious discussion about their policy ideas. How would they really shift the Republican Party in the country away from where Bush has taken the country, given that most voters are not happy with that direction, and sort of engage in the issues that people really care about now?

Because it's a different issue matrix that we're dealing with this election than we've dealt with in the past. You're dealing with global warming; you're dealing with really serious discussions about lessening our dependence on foreign oil; and you're dealing with terrorism and Iraq. And there hasn't been as much substantive discussion as I think some voters would like.

RAY SUAREZ: But it's still some time until the first votes are cast, Linda.

LINDA DOUGLASS: Well, that's why it's such an unusually fluid situation, where any of these candidates we've been talking about could emerge. But Jim is making such an important point, which is it seems to be that this is the year when the Republican Party has to redefine itself in some way, with some fresh definition of what being a Republican is, what Republicans stand for.

And there has been a lot of time spent at this point, certainly by Romney, certainly by Giuliani to a certain extent, and to some extent McCain, in reminding voters why they are connected to past Republicans, why they are like Reagan, why they can defend George Bush's policies. One wonders if that's a good idea.

RAY SUAREZ: Linda Douglass, Jim VandeHei, thank you both.