Republicans Spar Over Who Offers Best Alternative


By: Wall Street Journal

Republicans Spar Over Who Offers Best Alternative
By AMY SCHATZ and SUSAN DAVIS
October 22, 2007

ORLANDO, Fla. — Arguments over who is the most conservative candidate took center stage last night, as the Republican presidential candidates sparred in their ninth and perhaps testiest forum so far.

Questions about health care, Social Security overhaul and U.S. relations with Russia highlighted differences among some of the leading candidates, but much of the debate was devoted to a larger issue for anxious Republicans: Who will be the strongest candidate to lead the party to victory in 2008 against New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton?

Indeed, much of the debate was devoted to how the candidates would go about defeating Mrs. Clinton, a Democratic presidential candidate who currently holds a commanding lead in national and early voting state polls.

Eight Republican candidates took to the stage in Orlando last night for the 90-minute forum co-sponsored by the Florida Republican Party and Fox News, a division of News Corp., which is acquiring Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal. It was the first debate since Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback dropped out of the race, citing fund-raising issues.

The forum marked just the second time former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson has joined the rest of the field in a debate, but he didn’t stand out or obviously change the dynamics of the group. Bickering over which candidate is the most fiscal and social conservative continued, as it has in previous debates.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney sparked a dispute claiming to be the “real Republican” candidate recently, which drew criticism from his rivals, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. In the debate, each of the men sought to portray himself as the most conservative choice while poking holes in their rivals’ records.

“Governor Romney, you’ve spent the last year trying to fool people about your record,” said Mr. McCain. “I don’t want you to fool people about mine.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee likened the exchange to a “demolition derby” and drew laughs from the crowd when he said he was content to “let them fight all they want tonight, shed each other’s blood and then I’ll be ready to run for president.”

Much of the debate was focused on Mrs. Clinton, however.

The eight collectively voiced opposition to her health-care plan, aligning it to socialized health-care systems such as those in Canada and Britain. Mr. McCain said health care will be “one of the defining issues” of the campaign, and Mr. Romney fended off criticisms that the plan he enacted as governor contained mandates similar to those supported by Mrs. Clinton. “We took as many mandates out as we could in our policies. And the legislature kept some there. I tried to take them all out. They put some back in. It was a compromise,” he said.

Mr. McCain took issue with Mrs. Clinton’s spending plans, pointing out a $1 million congressional-funding earmark for a Woodstock Concert Museum. He noted he wasn’t able to attend the famous concert there in 1969 because he was in Vietnam. “I was tied up at the time,” Mr. McCain drawled, referring to his captivity during the war. The response drew a standing ovation from the crowd and applause from his fellow candidates.

Mr. Giuliani noted that he agreed with his fellow New Yorker on two points: the Yankees and his belief that Mrs. Clinton had more ideas for spending programs than the U.S. can afford. “No kidding, Hillary. America can’t afford you,” he said.

“You can always get an applause line with Hillary,” Mr. Thompson noted.

Write to Amy Schatz at Amy.Schatz@wsj.com

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