Unlike the Democrats at Monday's contentious presidential debate, the Republican candidates spent more time piling on Senator Hillary Clinton than each other at Thursday night's debate. And less than five days before Tuesday's pivotal Florida primary, one that Rudy Giuliani has staked his entire campaign on, the tough-talking former New York mayor failed to provide the kind of verbal fireworks that might help him regain the double-digit lead that's slipped from his grasp over the past two weeks and suddenly landed him in third place in most polls.
On the same day that the House announced a stimulus plan aimed at jumpstarting the flagging economy, the focus of the 90-minute debate in Boca Raton, Florida, was, not surprisingly, mainly on taxes, the economy and mutual disdain for the notion of two Clintons in the White House again. When asked how he would run against the Clintons, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney — the current leader in most polls in Florida — said he couldn't wait for the chance, "because the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House with nothing to do is something I just can't imagine." None mentioned Democratic candidate Barack Obama during the debate.
With each candidate trying to prove he had the financial acumen to guide the country through these perilous times, Arizona Senator John McCain, Romney and Giuliani mostly agreed on their support for the $150 billion stimulus plan, though all three also pegged it as not quite enough of a fix because it doesn't make President Bush's tax cuts permanent. Romney, a multimillionaire who has lately put a renewed emphasis on his success in the private sector as proof of his business experience, then took the opportunity to insert a rare jab at a rival in the mostly civil affair, bashing McCain for voting against tax cuts during Bush's first term.
"Senator McCain voted against them originally. He now believes they should be made permanent. I'm glad he agrees they should be made permanent. I think he should have voted for them the first time around," he said, adding, "I wasn't in Washington during all this time, so that's one of the reasons [Americans] ought to give me a chance, since I wasn't there messing this up." McCain said he originally opposed the tax cuts because they were not accompanied by corresponding spending cuts.
As they have in the past, the candidates mostly spared Bush from criticism, but McCain warned that Democratic candidates would likely increase taxes and the size of government. "There is nothing that the Democrats have said, that I have seen, except tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect," he said.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who has gone from a potential Republican front-runner to a possible third-place finisher in Florida, where he has pulled back his staffing and spending as his campaign runs low on cash, said he was afraid that much of the money from the stimulus plan could end up benefiting China, not the United States.
"We get those rebate checks, most people are going to go out and buy stuff that's been imported from China," said Huckabee. "I have to wonder whose economy is going to be stimulated the most by the package." His plan? To spend the $150 billion to create construction jobs by adding two lanes to the I-95 superhighway between Miami and Bangor, Maine. "A lot of people in Florida sit around in traffic every day, never getting to their kids' dance recitals or soccer games because they're stuck in traffic, and we've done nothing about it," he said.
Huckabee also took the opportunity to remind his rivals that he was the only candidate who sounded the alarm on the economy during a Republican forum last fall. "Every one of us were asked, 'How's the economy doing?' Every one of my colleagues said, 'It's doing great,' " Huckabee said. "When they came to me, I know people acted like I was the only guy at the U.N. without a headset that night. ... I was the only guy on that stage who said, 'It may be doing great if you're at the top.' "
From the economy to the war in Iraq, the candidates found plenty of opportunity to attack Hillary Clinton. Front-runners Romney and McCain agreed that the war was justified but mismanaged, and Romney lashed out at what he said were claims by Clinton and other Democrats that the recent drop in violence in Iraq was tied to calls from Democrats to withdraw U.S. troops. "The success over there is due to the blood and the courage of our servicemen and women, and to General Petraeus and to President Bush — not to General Hillary Clinton," Romney said pointedly.
With McCain now boasting an endorsement from "Rambo" star Sylvester Stallone, Huckabee faced the inevitable question about whether he agreed with the recent comments from his celebrity tough-guy supporter, Chuck Norris, that McCain, who is 71, might be too old to deal with the stress of being president. "I didn't disagree with [Norris] at the time because I was standing next to him," Huckabee joked.
The good-natured banter extended to some playful jabs at Romney's fortune, though he declined to reveal how much of it he's spent on the campaign so far. "You said you wanted them to inherit a great country, and I have a solution, Mitt, that I think will work," Huckabee said, speaking of Romney's five sons. "If the country will elect me president, they'll inherit a great country, and your boys will still get your money too."
Asked to explain why his campaign had failed to catch fire in Florida, where he has lavished much of his attention and spending in lieu of contending in the early primary and caucus states, Giuliani pointed to the example of the underdog New York Giants. "We're going to come from behind and surprise everyone," he said, smiling. "We have them all lulled into a very false sense of security."
How nice were the candidates? At one point near the end, McCain said of Giuliani, "I happen to know Rudy Giuliani. ... I happen to know he's an American hero. And I happen to have gone to New York City after 9/11. And I'm proud of the way he led this country and united it following 9/11."