With more drama than a season's worth of Heroes episodes, the GOP presidential candidates slugged it out during Wednesday night's Republican YouTube/CNN debate in St. Petersburg, Florida, which included personal snipes about hiring illegal immigrants, the season's first negative campaign ad, a tense exchange over the use of waterboarding as an interrogation tactic and even claims that a Democratic candidate had planted a military mole in the audience.
And since the questions were courtesy of YouTube, there were also some offbeat moments, including one in which a man grilled former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, an avowed Yankees fan, about his decision to support archrivals the Boston Red Sox during this year's World Series, as well as a humorous question from an animated Dick Cheney about how much power the candidates would give their vice president if elected.
With less than five weeks to go before the Iowa Republican caucuses and the field still open, all the candidates were eager to set themselves apart from each other as they touted their bona fide conservatism, while throwing an occasional jab at Democratic frontrunner Senator Hillary Clinton. The candidates also tackled issues ranging from gun control and abortion, to questions about whether they take the word of the Bible literally and if it's OK to fly a Confederate flag.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who polls show has a lead in two key early states, Iowa and New Hampshire, came under the most frequent fire during the event. In one of the most contentious volleys, Romney was attacked by Giuliani on one of the debate's focus issues: immigration. The former New York mayor brought up allegations that Romney knowingly hired illegal immigrants to do work on his home while serving as governor.
"At his own home, illegal immigrants were being employed — not being turned in to anybody or by anyone," Giuliani said in response to Romney's allegation that Giuliani made New York a "sanctuary city" for illegal aliens during his tenure. "I would say he had a sanctuary mansion, not just sanctuary city," Giuliani testily snapped back. Romney countered that it was "really kind of offensive" to suggest that, as a homeowner, he would be expected to ask the workers hired by his contractor to show papers proving they are in the country legally.
Though most of the questions came from YouTubers, CNN's Anderson Cooper, the debate's moderator, got into the action as well, questioning Giuliani about an online report that appeared before the debate stating that the ex-mayor used security details on the city's dime while traveling to the Hamptons to visit his then-alleged mistress and current wife, Judith Nathan; Giuliani denied the claims. Later, after a question from a retired brigadier general, who is now an openly gay man, about the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, Cooper pressed Romney on a statement he gave in 1994 about his hope to one day see gays and lesbians serving "openly and honestly" in the military. A defensive-sounding Romney admitted that he'd changed his mind on the policy, but Anderson kept after him about the statement.
"Do you stand by that?" Cooper asked again. "This isn't that time," Romney replied. "This is not that time. We're in the middle of a war."
It was later revealed that the man in the audience who asked the question, retired General Keith Kerr, has served on "LGBT Americans for Hillary," Clinton's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender steering committee. He told CNN Thursday morning (November 29) that he was not there as a representative of Clinton and had not been asked by Clinton's campaign to pose the question.
In another of the night's fiery back-and-forths, former Vietnam prisoner of war Senator John McCain lashed out at Romney for refusing to say whether he considered waterboarding of terror suspects to be torture, with Romney steadfastly saying it was "not wise" for a presidential candidate to talk about specific techniques.
"I am astonished that you would think such a torture would be inflicted on anyone ... held captive, and anyone who could believe that that's not torture. It's a violation of the Geneva Convention," McCain said forcefully as the audience applauded his stance. McCain also got into it with rising anti-war candidate Representative Ron Paul of Texas, whose strong Internet fundraising has suddenly catapulted him from an also-ran to a populist rising star.
When Paul said he could save billions of dollars by bringing American troops home from Iraq, McCain responded, "We allowed Hitler to come to power with that kind of attitude of isolationism and appeasement." Paul said McCain was distorting his view and that "[McCain] doesn't even understand the difference between nonintervention and isolationism."
Religion played a recurring role in the debate, with one of the night's most lighthearted moments coming via a video questioner, who wondered what Jesus would do about capital punishment? Former Arkansas Governor and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, whose campaign has seen a major boost in recent weeks, generated big applause by responding, "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office. ... That's what Jesus would do."
Though his campaign has lost some heat, actor and former Senator Fred Thompson brought drama during the debate by airing the season's first overt attack ad, in which he took Romney to task for formerly supporting abortion rights and then changing his stance, and Huckabee for saying raising taxes was a good thing. The candidates were allowed to submit a video to air during the event, and Thompson defended his attack by cheekily telling Cooper, "[I] just wanted to give my buddies here a little extra airtime."
For more on the 2008 election, check out the MTV/MySpace presidential dialogue with Senator John McCain on Monday, December 3 at 7 p.m. ET.