Republican presidential contenders depicted Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as weak on Iraq and certain to raise taxes Thursday night, setting aside their own campaign debate squabbles long enough to agree that she is unworthy of the White House.
"She is so out of step with the American people," said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, joined by Sen. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani in criticizing the former first lady.
The chorus of criticism came in an MSNBC debate that otherwise was notable for its civility as a crucial GOP primary looms in Florida next week.
McCain had kind words for Giuliani's stewardship as mayor of New York City after the Sept. 11 attacks. And Mike Huckabee said of McCain's fitness for office at age 71: "Of all the things we can pick on Senator McCain for, that ain't one of them."
Putting economy on center stage
The Republicans strove to present their credentials as advocates of tax cuts, particularly to head off the threat of recession. They generally agreed that the newly minted, bipartisan economic stimulus package was a good start.
"Well, there's a great deal that is effective in his plan. I just wish that it went further," said Romney. He said that he preferred a permanent tax cut for people on the lower end of the income spectrum.
Giuliani concurred, saying: "We should be very aggressive."
"I will vote for it," said McCain, the only contender on stage with a Senate seat. He quickly added he wants the tax cuts Bush won from Congress in 2001 and 2003 to be made permanent.
In recent days, the GOP presidential hopefuls had outlined stimulus packages of their own, most of which relied to a far greater degree on permanent tax cuts than the agreement between President Bush and Democratic leaders announced earlier Thursday in Washington.
About two-thirds of the tax relief would be delivered in rebate checks to 117 million families beginning in May. Individual taxpayers would get up to $600 in rebates, working couples $1,200 and those with children an additional $300 per child under the agreement.
Businesses would get $50 billion in incentives to invest in new plants and equipment.
Florida's big role in campaign
For McCain and Romney, Thursday’s debate at Florida Atlantic University presented a chance to step out smartly in the struggle for victory in next week’s Florida primary. McCain got a boost when the New York Times endorsed him Thursday night. On the Democrats' side, the Times endorsed Clinton.
For Giuliani and Huckabee, it represented perhaps a last, best hope to shake up a statewide — and national — campaign that appears to be slowly leaving them behind.
Rep. Ron Paul, a libertarian-leaning Texan with a vocal following, also had a spot on the stage for the prime-time debate.
Florida is the first big state to vote in the nominating campaign, the first winner-take-all contest in terms of delegates and the final election before a virtual national primary on Feb. 5.
NBC's Brian Williams, the debate moderator, pointed out that in recent years, no Republican has won the party's presidential nomination without first winning the Florida primary. Polls suggested Romney and McCain were co-frontrunners in the state. Giuliani and Huckabee were well behind.
Blunt questions, criticism of Clintons
The 90-minute debate featured a series of remarkably blunt questions to the five candidates on stage.
Asked about polls that showed him dropping dramatically in voters' esteem, Giuliani drew a laugh.
"This has become a very competitive race," he said, adding that he expected to come from behind much like the New York Giants did in reaching the Super Bowl. "When Mitt Romney asked me a question, he asked me a very nice question, so I think I lulled him into a false sense of security."
McCain was asked about his mother's statement that he lacked support from certain elements of the Republican Party. He claimed he had won the Republican vote in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, then pivoted to add that he won the support of independents as well.
"They know I'll put my country ahead of my party every time," he added, attempting to portray himself as more electable than his rivals in the general election.
It wasn't the only moment where the focus turned away from the battle for the Republican presidential nomination, and toward the general election campaign with the Democrats.
Romney had a quick reply when asked how he would run against the team of Clinton and her husband, the former president.
"The idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House with nothing to do is something I can’t imagine," Romney said. He said that Hillary Clinton would run on her merits but said that she was out of step with most Americans.
After saying Clinton wanted to retreat from Iraq, raise taxes and win government-run health care, Romney added, "She is exactly what's wrong in Washington. I said before, 'Washington is broken.'"
McCain said the war was worth the cost in American lives because "we got rid of Saddam Hussein. He said we will be able to eventually draw down in Iraq, but not now. He said the U.S. should not "wave the white flag" as Sen. Clinton would do.
Giuliani said of the former first lady, "she used to be in favor of the war. Now she's against it."
The barrage of criticism was the equivalent of the flip side of Monday's Democratic debate, when McCain's name came up several times as though he would be the Republican nominee, the man to be beaten in the fall.
Clinton's campaign issued a statement after the debate, saying:
"Senator Clinton looks forward to debating the eventual Republican nominee, making her case for bringing the troops home quickly and responsibly and detailing her solutions for jumpstarting the economy and reversing the Bush policies."
For and against the Iraq conflict
On other topics, the candidates were asked whether the war in Iraq was worth the cost in money and lives.
Giuliani pointed out that his support for the war had never wavered. "I was for it when six out of 10 (Americans) were for it, I’m for it when six out of 10 are against it," he said.
A contrary note came from Paul, a Texas congressmen: "We should never be a country that starts a war."
In the portion of the debate in which candidates quizzed each other, McCain noted that Huckabee is a proponent of the "fair tax" — essentially a national sales tax to replace the current income tax system — and asked how the former Arkansas governor answered criticisms that it would hit low-income people harder.
"The reason that it's getting resonance is that people would love to see the IRS abolished," Huckabee said. He said that the poor would come out best of all because of a rebate feature. "It untaxes the poor, untaxes the elderly." Furthermore, he said underground elements of the economy — such as drug dealers — would now pay taxes under the system.
Taking on Social Security
On a subject of particular note in Florida, home of many retirees, the candidates were asked what they would do to save Social Security.
Paul advocated radical change. "Let the young people get out because they’re going to be paying all these years" with no return, he said, referring to projections that with fewer people paying in and more baby boomers retiring, the system could face bankruptcy.
Huckabee again raised the fair tax as a solution, saying it would even out revenues because Social Security payments would come out of the general fund.
Asked by Tim Russert of NBC News whether he would raise taxes to save Social Security as former President Ronald Reagan did in 1983, Romney said, "No, I don’t want to raise taxes."
"It has a double whammy" on Americans, he said. "Not only are you taking money out their pocketbooks, you're slowing down the economy."
There were several almost collegial moments in the debate. McCain took a moment to praise Giuliani's handling of New York City's response to the terrorist attacks.
"I happen to have gone to New York City after 9/11," McCain said. "And I'm proud of the way he led this country and united it following 9/11."
And Huckabee responded to a question from a member of the audience about whether McCain would be able to withstand the demands of the presidency if he were to take office at age 72.
"I don't think that Senator McCain lacks the rigor and the capacity to be president," Huckabee said. "If you look at his mother and see her strength at 95, of all the things we can pick on Senator McCain for, that ain't one of them. There may be some other things I can pick on Senator McCain about, but not that."