DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican presidential rivals called for deep cuts in federal spending Wednesday in a debate remarkably free of acrimony and agreed the reductions they seek need not require painful sacrifice by millions of Americans who rely on government services.
“The sacrifice we need from the American people is saying, ‘Let the programs go that don't work. Don't lobby for them forever,’ ” said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, one of nine GOP presidential hopefuls sharing an Iowa stage little more than three weeks before the state's caucuses provide the first test of the campaign.
Republicans running for president also called Wednesday for massive tax reform as they debated for the last time before the leadoff Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has vaulted to the front-running position, overtaking longtime leader Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, in a matter of weeks. As he has advanced, more scrutiny is being paid to his policy positions, especially his advocacy of a so-called fair tax, a national 23 percent sales tax that would eliminate the Internal Revenue Service.
While advisers to his rivals have suggested that Huckabee’s tax position could be used to paint him as outside the mainstream, some of his opponents spoke warmly of the idea Wednesday as they discussed the question of tax reform.
Rep. Duncan Hunter of California welcomed the “fair tax,” saying the idea “is a good one.”
So did Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who called the income tax “archaic” and “a system that taxes productivity.”
“We’ve got to reform the tax code,” McCain said. “No one understands it.”
Besides Romney, several contenders also called for deep cuts in federal spending.
Giuliani called for across-the-board cuts of up to 15 percent, including reduced federal spending on health care. “Rather than relying on a nanny government, let’s rely on people to decide their own health care,” he said.
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Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee was an exception on that question. “We’ve got to spend more for the military as a matter of fact, but we’ve got to look at Social Security and Medicare and do some things that won’t hurt anybody badly,” he said. Thompson, alone among the White House contenders in both parties, has called for steps to reduce the benefits promised to future retirees.
Huckabee in the crosshairs
After languishing in the low single digits in national and Iowa polls, Huckabee has gained ground not only in Iowa but also in South Carolina, another early voting state. He has even eroded Giuliani’s lead in nationwide polls.
The result has been an increase in testiness — Romney on Tuesday became the first candidate to assail another in a TV ad, hitting Huckabee for his position on immigration.
Romney and Huckabee had been engaged in an increasingly fierce battle, but it was Thompsonwho has dropped in polls, who launched the most frequent barbs, directing them mainly at Romney.
Thompson said he wished he were like Romney and didn’t have to worry about taxes. When Romney replied that he envied Thompson’s situation as a high-paid actor, Thompson shot back, “You’re getting to be a pretty good actor, actually.”
For the most part, Huckabee stayed in the background, answering specific questions with general statements that sought to cast him as a unifying leader. Asked what his first act would be upon taking office, Huckabee talked broadly about bringing the country together. At another point, he told his Republican rivals, “We need to quit fighting amongst ourselves.”
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was also participating, as was commentator Alan Keyes, who all but hijacked the debate at times, squabbling with moderator Carolyn Washburn, editor of The Des Moines Register, and launching long orations on the need to return God to American life.
Washburn brought about a mini-revolt at one point when she asked all the candidates to raise their hands if they thought global warming was a serious threat caused by human behavior. “I’m not doing hand shows today,” said Thompson.
Ultimately, no one disputed that it was a problem and humans at least contribute to it.
“I know it’s real,” said McCain, who advocates legislation to tackle the problem.
“Climate change is real. It’s happening. Human beings are contributing to it,” agreed Giuliani.
Jesus and the devil
There was no discussion of Huckabee’s comments about Romney’s Mormon religion in a New York Times magazine interview made public on Wednesday, in which he said he didn’t know much about the religion but questioned: “Don’t Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?”
Huckabee may have been alluding to the comments in the debate when he said his New Year’s resolution would be to “be a lot more careful about what I say because I’ve found it gets amplified.” For Tancredo and Hunter, the debate format was a disadvantage. Washburn announced at the outset that there would be little discussion of immigration, Tancredo’s key issue, or the war in Iraq, which Hunter has used to burnish his image as a hawk on national security.
“Iowans say they know where the candidates come from” on those issues, Washburn said.
How Democrats shape up
Democrats, for their part, hold their last Iowa debate Thursday.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the yearlong front-runner in national polls, is locked in a three-way race in Iowa with challengers Barack Obama, a senator from Illinois, and John Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina. All three have added celebrities to their campaign schedules recently — media mogul Oprah Winfrey for Obama, former President Bill Clinton for his wife and actors Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins for Edwards.
Sponsored by Iowa Public Television and The Des Moines Register, the two debates are being held in Johnston, Iowa, and are also being broadcast live on MSNBC, Iowa Public Television, CNN, C-SPAN3, Fox News Channel, C-SPAN Radio and Fox News Radio.
Fox News has not previously aired a Democratic debate. Earlier this year, the Democratic candidates rejected Fox News’ efforts to sponsor a debate after liberal groups and some of the candidates accused the Rupert Murdoch-owned network of being biased against Democrats.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.