Debate Tests McCain’s New Status
By: Wall Street Journal
Republicans Meet In South Carolina, Gird for Michigan
By ALEX FRANGOS
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — The jumbled Republican presidential field debated for the first time since John McCain’s New Hampshire primary win, elbowing each other in hopes of gaining an edge before the next round of state primaries.
The economy was a prominent theme of the forum, along with immigration, Iran and the legacy of Ronald Reagan. The first question went to Mitt Romney, asking him what he would do to mend troubles in the economy. The former Massachusetts governor, hoping to boost his candidacy with a strong showing in economically distressed Michigan next Tuesday, said the federal government’s No. 1 priority in forestalling a recession is “to stop the housing crisis.”
Republican presidential hopefuls pose prior to a Republican debate on Fox News Channel in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
But having suffered disappointing second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, he then immediately went for his main rival in Michigan, Mr. McCain. Mr. Romney noted the Arizona senator has said some manufacturing jobs lost in Michigan will never come back. “I disagree,” said Mr. Romney. “I’m going to fight for every single job.”
Mr. McCain backed up his statements, calling them “straight talk,” and urging community-college job retraining and investment in technology. “We can use Detroit for this,” he said. “There’s tremendous technology in the state of Michigan.”
Trying to stay hopeful when asked whether they thought the U.S. economy is headed toward a recession, most candidates said they thought it isn’t but advocated tax cuts and restrained government spending to boost growth. Only Texas Rep. Ron Paul disagreed. “I believe we’re in a recession. I think it’s going to get a lot worse,” Mr. Paul said, laying blame on his favorite target, lax monetary policy.
Laggard candidate Fred Thompson, who has made South Carolina a key part of his strategy, attacked former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee several times. Mr. Huckabee has garnered much of the conservative Christian support Mr. Thompson needs to do well in South Carolina.
Fielding a question over the future of the Reagan Coalition, the usually sedate Mr. Thompson said, “This is a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party and its future.” He said that Mr. Huckabee, a Baptist minister, “would be a Christian leader, but he would bring about liberal economic policies and liberal foreign policies.” Mr. Thompson then listed Mr. Huckabee’s record on the prison at Guantanamo Bay, education, taxes, foreign policy and federalism, a record that he charged was at odds with Mr. Reagan’s conservatism. “That’s not the model of the Reagan Coalition, that’s the model of the Democratic Party,” Mr. Thompson said to applause.
Mr. Huckabee, who vaulted into the top of the field after his win in Iowa and a respectable third-place finish in New Hampshire, quipped back, “the Air Force has a saying: “If you’re not catching flak, you’re not over the target. I’m over the target.” He defended his record, saying he “stayed faithful with the things Ronald Reagan was faithful to.”
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani argued that his moderate social policies aren’t a liability. “If we want to be a party that can run and win in states that Ronald Reagan won,” he said, referring to President Reagan’s 1984 electoral victories in New York, California and New Jersey, “we’re going to have to take a really good look at what made up the Reagan coalition.” Mr. Giuliani has all but written off the early primaries, concentrating instead on performing well in more moderate, delegate-rich Florida on Jan. 29.
The debate spotlighted the still uncertain state of the race. Mr. Huckabee is under pressure in South Carolina to prove he can rally the same Christian conservative troops who delivered his Iowa win. For Mr. McCain, it is a return to the state that stymied him in 2000, when he lost to George W. Bush.
The debate was sponsored by Fox News, a unit of News Corp., which also owns The Wall Street Journal.
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Though the debate was held in balmy South Carolina, whose Republican primary is held Jan. 19, it is likely to have an impact on voters in frigid Michigan, which holds its primary next Tuesday. Mr. Romney, bruised by second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire has diverted resources to Michigan, hoping to make it the scene of a comeback.
But Mr. Romney faces stiff competition there. Mr. McCain won the state in 2000. Mr. Huckabee hopes to build on the sizable evangelical population of a state suffering from high unemployment and sharp home-price declines by promoting his populist economic message.
Opinion polls taken Wednesday gave a psychological boost to Mr. McCain’s campaign following his New Hampshire win. A Fox News poll conducted Wednesday gives Mr. McCain a seven-point lead in South Carolina over Mr. Huckabee 25% to 18%, with Mr. Romney at 17%. 20% are undecided.
–Susan Davis and Elizabeth Holmes contributed to this article.
Write to Alex Frangos at email@example.com
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