The Republican presidential candidates standing on stage at the University of South Carolina may have looked nearly indistinguishable in their dark suits, white shirts and red or blue ties, but once the words began to fly, the differences between them were made clear, emphasized in sharp exchanges and pointed attacks.
Tuesday night's saw several sharp exchanges as veiled criticisms were replaced by direct language, and motives were questioned. And while there were no clear-cut winners, there were memorable moments and perhaps one loser, at least in the eyes of many in the audience.
In the most dramatic exchange, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani took umbrage at a suggestion by Congressman Ron Paul that past U.S. foreign policy had fostered hatred of America leading up to 9/11.
Giuliani called that an "extraordinary statement," adding: "I would ask the congressman to withdraw that comment and tell us that he didn't really mean that." Paul refused to do so, contending that terrorists "don't come here to attack us because we're rich and we're free. They come and they attack us because we're over there."
For Giuliani, who received sustained applause for his comments, it was a welcome moment in a debate expected to focus on his position on social issues, particularly abortion. The spontaneous moment allowed Giuliani to revive his image as the strong leader who helped calm a city and a nation in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, achievements which have propelled him to the top of the GOP field.
It was a moment the campaign was eager to talk about following the debate. "The war on terrorism to Rudy is personal," Giuliani adviser and pollster Ed Goeas told CBSNews.com. "I think you saw in his reaction that this is more than just an intellectual debate, this is something that is personal to him."
Under the microscope for some of his recent conflicting statement on abortion, Giuliani was asked to address the issue several times. He sought at one point to play down his support for abortion rights by broadening the question and raising the specter of what he called the Democratic Party's "leading presidential candidate" – Hillary Clinton.
"There's something, I think, really big at stake here," said Giuliani. Without mentioning Clinton's name, he said she agreed that the "unfettered free market is the most disastrous thing in modern America" and claimed she favors increasing taxes. "There's such a stark difference there," said Guiliani, "that this election in 2008 is going to make a very big difference about whether we go in that direction."
Tensions also broke through between Arizona Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Many conservatives have been critical of the immigration bill McCain has co-sponsored with Democrat Ted Kennedy because of what some say is an amnesty provision it includes. Many Republicans also opposed the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform proposals, which eventually became law, and when Romney equated the two, McCain bristled, pointing out Romney's shifting position on several issues since he ran for office in Massachusetts.
"My fear is that McCain-Kennedy would do to immigration what McCain-Feingold has done to campaign finance and money in politics, and that's bad," Romney said.
McCain responded by pointing out his consistency on campaign finance reform, among other issues. "I have kept a consistent position on right to life," he said, before referencing what some see as Romney's flip-flops. "I haven't changed my position on even-numbered years or have changed because of the different offices that I may be running for."
Afterwards, the campaigns were less eager to continue the exchange. Romney spokesman Kevin Madden characterized Romney's response as issue-directed, saying "all the answers that the governor gave to the questions were direct and they were substantive on the policies" that were being addressed. Asked about McCain's response, Madden said only: "I think a lot of voters will judge that exchange and judge Governor Romney's answers."
McCain adviser Charlie Black said Romney "punched at" McCain and McCain "counter-punched." McCain "does not initiate attacks but when hit, is a great counter-puncher and that's what happened tonight," said Black.
Other candidates joined in as well, with the emphasis on shifting or conflicting positions. Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore criticized Giuliani for his position on abortion, pointed out that former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee had raised taxes and called Romney's Massachusetts health care plan a big government intrusion. Congressman Tom Tancredo said he had heard so many conversions on the issues that "it's beginning to truly sound like a Baptist tent revival meeting here."
The debate, co-hosted by the Fox News Channel and the South Carolina Republican Party, was conducted in a manner to elicit such conflict, said Huckabee. "The hosts did a good job of sort of saying, 'OK, you've said it out there behind their back, now say it to their face,'" he told reporters. "I thought it was appropriate. I was pleased that we got a chance to mix it up a little bit."
Black agreed, saying that the overall tone was appropriate. "The moderators and the questioners conducted the debate in such a way as to encourage interaction and competition. I think it was fine, certainly nothing got out of hand or out of control."
There were lighter moments as well. McCain drew audience applause with his oft-repeated line comparing the past GOP congressional majority's spending habits to that of a drunken sailor only to be one-upped by Huckabee who said, "We've had a Congress that's spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop."
Giuliani joked about those who have compared the top tier candidates to some sort of Frankenstein monster called Rudy McRomney. "I think 'Rudy McRomney' wouldn't make a bad ticket," said Giuliani, adding: "I kind of like the order."
For Republicans over the past twenty years, South Carolina has been serious business in presidential politics. The state has played a pivotal role, usually for establishment candidates seeking to regain momentum after disappointments in Iowa or New Hampshire. Most recently, in 2000, George W. Bush came to the state fresh from a demoralizing New Hampshire defeat and was able to beat John McCain in a bare-knuckled fight to claim South Carolina, helping him regain momentum on his way to the nomination.
McCain appears best positioned to take advantage of that history. In a party which tends to award those leaders next in line, it would appear to be his turn. He leads in most recent polling in this state and the other early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. But he stumbled earlier in the year, getting off to a lackluster start on the campaign trail and in fundraising.
It is Giuliani who leads the field in most national polls and the continued talk of a possible entry into the race by former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson suggests unease among some in the party over their current choices. Romney's fundraising success and recent media exposure, meanwhile, have had his campaign on the upswing lately.
Tuesday's debate is unlikely to shake up the dynamics that have those three occupying the top tier of the GOP field. But if it was any preview of things to come, such changes are not out of the question.
By Vaughn Ververs