They used to give away free copies of the evening Independent every day it rained here in St. Petersburg, Fla. The old paper is gone, but the storm clouds have gathered this evening over the bayfront Mahaffey Theater where the Republican candidates for president have come to debate in a two-hour show starting at 8 pm EST and sponsored by CNN and YouTube.
by Mark Silva
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- "Welcome to the Ron Paul debate,'' reads the banner strung across an expressway leading into downtown St. Petersburg, where the Republican candidates for president assembled this evening for a nationally televised debate run by CNN.
But this really is the Rudy Giuliani debate -- played out in a state where Republican voters are heavily leaning toward the former mayor of New York, who still must strive to hold his claim to national front-runner's status among his party's candidates. It's a claim that will be quickly challenged in Iowa, New Hampshire and other primary contests in January, with Giuliani looking forward to a 20--plus state sweep of primaries on Feb. 5 to repair whatever damage is done.
And this is the Mitt Romney debate -- as the former governor of Massachusetts strives to hold an early advantage that massive early campaigning and costly television advertising has earned him in Iowa and New Hampshire.
And this is the John McCain debate -- as the senator from Arizona attempts to make good on the story line of that McCain-is-rebounding-story. McCain, who forfeited Iowa in his first bid for the White House in 2000 and has relatively little support there today, counts on New Hampshire to rekindle his campaign, just as the state's voters boosted him in '00.
This also is the Mike Huckabee debate -- as the former governor of Arkansas and Baptist minister appeals to those social conservatives within his party who ask themselves if they really want a Giuliani, who supports abortion rights, or a Romney, who once supported abortion rights but now opposess abortion, or a McCain, whose time may have come and gone.
And, OK, it's also the Ron Paul debate -- as the only anti-war candidate in the crowd attempts to parlay the support he has found on the Internet into a respectable ground campaign in the early primary states. And it's the Tom Tancredo bar-the-borders-debate, and the Duncan Hunter, revive-the-military-industrial complex debate
It is, after all, the big debate of the night. So join us here in the Spin Room before, during and after the two-hour show starting at 8 pm EST to tell us whose debate it really was.
The debate featuring video-questions from some of the participants who had submitted some 5,000 queries through YouTube, opened with fireworks over illegal immigration between former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Ernie from Brooklyn had a question for the ex-mayor: “Under your administration as well as others, New York City was operated as a sanctuary city… will you continue to aid and abet the flight of illegal aliens into this country
“The reality is that New York City was not a sanctuary city,’’ Giuliani said. “New York City allowed the children of illegal immigrants to go to school… if we didn’t… we would have had 70,000 children on the streets…. We reported thousands and thousands… of names of illegal immigrants who committed crimes to the federal authorities… and they weren’t deported… If I were president of the United States, I could do something about that.’’
Was New York a sanctuary, moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN asked?
Romney: “Absolutely… The mayor… .brought a suit to actually maintain its sanctuary status… This happens to be a difference between Mayor Giuliani and myself and others on this stage as well… If you happen to be in this country in an undocumented status… ‘then we welcome you here’ – that’s the wrong attitude.’’
“Mitt generally criticizes people in a situation where he has substantially the worst record,’’replied Giuliani, citing six sanctuary citiees in Massachusetts – plus “a sanctuary mansion,’’ Romney’s own home, where illegal immigrants were being employed. “I would say he had sanctuary mansion, not just sanctuary city.’’
“Mayor, you know better than that,’’ Romney said.
“You had illegal immigrants at your mansion, did you not?’’ Giuliani asked.
“No,’’ Romney said – asking, if one hires a company to work on a home and hears foreign voices outside, is one to go out and challenge them?
“It just so happens that you have a special immigration problem up here that no one else has – you were employing illegal immigrants,’’ Giuliani said.
“Let me tell you what I did as governor – I said no to driver’s licenses for illegals,’’ Romney said.
Fred Thompson, former senator from Tennesee, said: “A nation that cannot maintain and defend its own borders will not remain a sovereign nation….’’
“As far as Mayor Giuliani is concerned,’’ Thompson said, “I am a little surprised at him saying that someone is responsible for everyone they hire.’’
“We can talk about that more,’’ Thompson said, without specifically naming the subject of his apparent allusion, Bernie Kerik, the former New York police commissioner whom Giuliani recommended to President Bush for homeland security secretary and recently faced federal indictment.
Giuliani took a pass on the passing shot at his friend, and said: “New York City was not a sanctuary city… The three exceptions were to allow children to go to school, to allow those illegal immigrants who were victims of crime… to report them… to allow emergency rooms’’ to treat illegal immigrants.
“We never proposed amnesty,’’ Sen. John McCain says. “This whole debate saddens me.’’
As president, he said, he will secure the borders and he will address the problem of illegal immigration in a comprehensive fashion.
* * *
Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, was asked by Ashley from San Antonio, Texas, about giving scholarships to illegal immigrant children. Would he support a law to give the same tuition breaks to military members, she asked?
“You’re a little misinformed,’’ Huckabee said. “We never passed a bill that gave special privileges to the children of illegal immigrants to go to college,’’ Huckabee said, saying that he wanted to give the children of immigrants the same opportunity for an “Academic Challenge Scholarship’’ that others had. “It said that, if you sat in our schools… and you became an A-plus student… and you had to be applying for citizenship… we wanted people to be taxpayers, not tax-takers… Finally, would we give that provision to the children of veterans personally?’’ – he said veterans have been poorly treated.
“I like Mike,’’ Romney said. “But he basically said that he fought for giving scholarships to illegal aliens.’’
Huckabee said: “I’m standing here tonight because I got an education… If I hadn’t gotten that education, I might be picking lettuce … In all due respect, we’re a better country than to punish children for what their parents did. We’re a better country than that.’’
“We’re not punishing children for what their parents did,’’ Romney said. “The question is, are we going to give taxpayer-funded benefits to kids who are here illegally?.... Are we going to say that kids who are here illegally are going to get a special deal?
* * *
Sarah from Scottdale, Pa., askes about controlling government spending.
McCain said: “I have a record of fighting against wasteful spending… As president of the United States, I’d take an old veto pen that Ronald Reagan gave me, and I’d veto every piece of pork-barrel spending that came across my desk.’’
Romney: “The senator is absolutely right. … We’re going to have to fundamentally go at something like our entitlements, and say we’re going to have to reform those…’’ And put a cap on discretionary spending.
Giuliani proposed: “Across the board spending cuts… We should commit not to rehire half the civilian work force that retires in the next ten years.. and we should look at those programs… the 3 percent of programs that OMB (Office of Management and Budget_ finds every year is failing. They should be eliminated.’’
Emily from Los Angeles also asked about spending: She challenged them to name the top three programs you would decrease.
“It’s a target-rich environment,’’ said Fred Thompson. “The OMB has come out with a list of 100 programs.. I would take every 100 of them.’’
Ron Paul, congressman from Texas, was pressed about naming three programs.
“I would like to,’’ replied Paul, “such as the Department of Education, Department of Energy, the Department of Homeland Security is the biggest bureaucracy we’ve ever had. ‘’
Huckabee said: “The first thing I’d get rid of is the Internal Revenue Service.’’
They were asked about replacing the federal income tax with a national sales tax.
“I do not’’ favor that, McCain said. “Obviously, we need to have a fairer, simpler tax code…. If Congress cant fix the tax code, give me the job, I’ll fix it.’’
* * *
McCain then laced into Paul for calling for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
“That kind of isolationism, sir, is what caused World War II,’’ McCain said. “We allowed Hitler to come to power with that kind of isolationism.’’
Paul replied: “The real question you have to ask is, why do I get the most money from active-duty officers, military… What John is saying is totally distorted. He doesn’t understand the difference between non-intervention and isolationism.’’
* * *
Heading into a commercial break, CNN showed a Thompson-sponored campaign ad portraying a pro-abortion rights Romney and a then-Gov. Huckabee talking about accepting any tax that state lawmakers wanted.
“What’s up with that?’’ moderator Anderson Cooper asked.
“I wanted to give my buddies there a little extra air time,’’ Thompson replied. “”What do you mean what’s up with it – these are their words.’’
“I was wrong…’’ Romney said. “On abortion, I was wrong… I changed my mind.’’
Huckabee said he had been misconstrued, but took the attack as a compliment.
“Like my old pastor used to say,’’ said Huckabee, a Baptist minister. “When they’re kicking you in the rear, it just proves you’re out front.’’
* * *
They were asked about their stances on gun control, by a man cocking a weapon.
“The mayor has supported a wide array of gun-control laws,’’ Thompson said of Giuliani.
“Some of these gun laws do not make a city a safer city,’’ Giuliani said. “The things we did in New York indisputably made New York a safer city… The Second Amendment clearly gives you the right to carry and bear arms… That protection comes from the Constitution, not just the president.’’
Another man asked them about their gun collections.
Thompson said: “I own a couple of guns, but I’m not going to tell you what they are or where they are.’’
McCain, a former prisoner-of-war in Vietnam: “For a long time, I used a lot of guns, including carrying a .45 flying as a pilot over Vietnam… I know how to use guns. I don’t own one now.’’
“I have two guns in my home,’’ Romney said. “They are owned by my son Josh.’’
* * *
On abortion, Giuliani was asked if he would sign a federal ban on abortions if Congress passed it.
“I probably would not sign it,'' he said. "I would leave it to the states to make that decision.’’
“I think you should have parental consent. I think we should have access to adoptions.. but ultimately
Romney: “I agree with Sen. Thompson. We should overturn Roe v. Wade… I’d be delighted to sign that bill. But that’s not where we are right now. That’s not where America is.’’ We have to overturn Roe v. Wade, he said of the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.
* * *
They faced a question on the death penalty: “What would Jesus do?’’
Huckabee: “I’m the only one on this stage that had to do it… It was the toughest decision I’ve ever made.’’
“I believe there is a place for a death penalty. Some crimes are so heinous, so horrible…
But, the former governor said: “Jesus was smarter than to ever run for public office.’’
* * *
They were asked if they believe every word in the Bible.
“Well…’’ Giuliani replied.
“Let me help you out here, mayor on this one,’’ said Huckabee, a Baptist minister.
“The reality is, I believe it, but I don’t believe it… in every respect,'' Giuliani said. "There are parts of the Bible that are allegorical… I don’t believe everything in the literal sense of Jonah being in the belly of the whale.’’
“I believe the Bible is the word of God,’’ said Romney, who has faced questions from evangelical voters because of his own faith in the Mormon religion -- and pressed if he believes every word, he said: “I read the Bible, and I believe the Bible is the word of God.’’
“The Bible is exactly what it is. It’s the word of revelation to us from God himself,’’ Huckabee said. “Nobody believes that any of us should go pluck out our eye… The Bible is allegorical.’’