COLUMBIA, S.C. — Republican presidential heavyweights Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney struggled to prove their conservative bona fides and explain their equivocations on important issues to the GOP in their second debate.
Darts from the seven underdog candidates on stage with them — and provocative questions from the debate moderators — made the trio's task much harder.
The result was a difference in tone — and substance — from the first GOP debate on May 3, a mostly polite affair awash in Ronald Reagan references.
"This was clearly more contentious," Joe Gaylord, a GOP strategist close to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, said of the 90-minute debate at the University of South Carolina. "But I thought in that way it was a little more edifying."
Eight months before the first primary votes are cast, the three top-tier candidates sought to protect their leading positions in the wide-open race — and prove they would bring conservative principles into the Oval Office even as they answered for their own shifts on various issues.
Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, defended himself repeatedly on his support for abortion rights as he emphasized what he called his record of fiscal restraint during his mayoral tenure. Romney conceded he had signed legislation banning assault weapons while governor of Massachusetts, but said he is a supporter of the rights of gun owners under the Second Amendment. And, McCain, a four-term Arizona senator, said he would make sure that President Bush's tax cuts are made permanent, even though he voted against them. He said he voted that way because the tax cuts were not accompanied by spending cuts.
Video: Second debate Romney and McCain sniped at each other, the monthlong behind-the-scenes aggression between their campaigns bursting into the open.
"Until this debate, they'd been content to lob missiles at each other from a distance but they were polite in person," said Dan Schnur, a former McCain aide who is now unaligned. This time, he said, "they were more confrontational face to face."
McCain hits back
Romney criticized McCain for working across party lines on two bills that conservatives oppose — immigration and campaign spending. He pointedly referred to the bills as "McCain-Kennedy" and "McCain-Feingold," linking McCain with his Democratic co-sponsors.
Slapping back, McCain said: "I haven't changed my position in even-numbered years or ... because of the different offices that I may be running for."
Romney, in turn, poked at McCain's call for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and said he would double the number of suspected terrorists there. "I don't want them on our soil," he said.
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Seeking to stay above the tit-for-tat, Giuliani, the GOP front-runner in national polls, urged his rivals to focus on the Democrats, not turn on each other.
"Republicans should be uniting," to defeat the Democrats rather than stressing their differences with one another, he said.
Giuliani challenges Paul
Yet, even he strayed from his own advice when he challenged Texas Rep. Ron Paul's suggestion that U.S. bombing of Iraq had contributed to the terrorist attacks of 2001.
As mayor of New York at the time of the attacks, Giuliani said sternly, "I don't think I've ever heard that before, and I have heard some pretty absurd explanations."
His rebuke to Paul drew some of the loudest applause of the night from the partisan audience.
The lesser-known rivals, meantime, criticized the leading trio at every turn as they sought to stand out.
"You sort of saw the desperateness of some of the second tier, trying to do anything to capture attention," said David Winston, a GOP pollster.
Fox News Channel's questioners Brit Hume, Chris Wallace and Wendell Goler also asked questions to force the candidates to address issues in which they differed with the party's base, using language at times that appeared aimed at making for a feisty debate.
A touch of levity
"Some of the people on this stage were very liberal in characterizing themselves as conservatives, particularly on the issues of abortion and taxes and health care," said former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who refers to the top trio as "Rudy McRomney" and claims none are conservatives.
Video: Russert analysis Prodded to name names, Gilmore singled out Giuliani for his position on abortion and chastised Romney's stance on health care.
"Did I get left out?" McCain quipped, offering levity in a contentious debate.
Issuing a challenge, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, who served in Vietnam, noted his experience on military matters and said: "I think the other guys ought to lay out their credentials to be commander in chief."
Asked whether he believes McCain, Romney and Giuliani were soft on immigration, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado said, "I do." Then, he added that his rivals had undergone recent conversions on abortion and other issues. "It's beginning to truly sound like a Baptist tent revival meeting here," he said.
"I trust those conversions when they happen on the road to Damascus and not on the road to Des Moines," Tancredo added, contrasting the biblical with the political.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee questioned Giuliani's position that he opposes abortion because it's wrong, yet still supports a women's right to choose.
"If it's wrong, then we ought to be opposed to it, and we ought to find ways to find better ways to deal with our respect for human life," Huckabee said.
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