ORLANDO, Fla. — After two weeks of sparring from afar, the top GOP presidential candidates took their attacks up close Sunday, using the first round of their debate here to question one another’s conservative credentials.
Even after the opening salvos, the bulk of the time at the forum – aired by Fox News – was spent on four-way fireworks among Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Fred Thompson.
Gradually, they shifted their attention away from one another and onto a common foe, Sen. Hillary Clinton, but it was the scrapping among themselves that summed up the increasingly-heated Republican primary race.
Thompson, showing a degree of passion unseen in his first debate appearance two weeks ago, offered perhaps the toughest charges of the night.
He blasted Giuliani on abortion, immigration, gun control, taxes and the former New York mayor’s support for Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo's re-election bid in 1994.
“So I simply disagree with him those issues,” said the former Tennessee senator. “And he sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues I just mentioned.”
In GOP primary politics, a direct comparison to the party’s bete noire amounts to fighting words, and Giuliani was not shy in hitting back.
“Fred has his problems, too,” said Giuliani, calling his rival “the single biggest obstacle to tort reform in the United States Senate.”
Prodded on by Fox moderators plainly encouraging a top-tier tiff, Thompson took another shot at Giuliani’s support for keeping New York a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants, prompting another critique in reply.
“The senator has never had executive responsibility,” Giuliani said, adding that Thompson has also “never had the weight of people's safety and security on his shoulders.”
But it wasn’t just the two former New York prosecutors (one on TV, one in real life) who scrapped.
McCain, with evident glee, leveled some of his toughest shots yet at Romney.
“You've been spending the past year fooling people about your record,” McCain charged.
Later, in an allusion to Romney’s background as a venture capitalist, McCain said, “I didn't manage for profit, I led for patriotism.”
For his part, Romney declined to return any fire at McCain, preferring to keep up his contrast with Giuliani on social issues.
“All of us on the stage are Republican,” Romney said. “But the question is, who will be able to build the house that Ronald Reagan built?”
Romney was referring to his message that GOP success depends on keeping social conservatives in an alliance with fiscal and security hawks.
Romney strategist Alex Castellanos was more candid in articulating the line of attack after the debate, expressing wonderment at Giuliani’s repeated invocation of Reagan.
“That’s a tad odd given that he wants to junk the Reagan model that has been successful for Republicans since 1980,” Castellanos said.
The top-tier Republicans took some time out from attacking each other to criticize Clinton.
Citing a recent quote by Clinton that, while she has “a million ideas,” the country “can’t afford them all,” Giuliani sounded a note that had a decidedly direct New York feel to it.
“No kidding, Hillary – America can’t afford you,” Giuliani jabbed.
When Romney was asked if Clinton was “fit to be commander-in-chief,” the audience preempted the candidate, bellowing a collective “no!”
The former governor eventually agreed after spending some time hammering her for her lack of executive experience.
McCain and Thompson, however, were decidedly more restrained in their discussion of her.
Striking a gracious note, McCain event went so far as to say, “I know and respect Sen. Clinton,&rdquo using her professional title when Giuliani and Romney called her only by her widely-used first name.
While his refusal to tell the Republican activists in attendance what they wanted to hear kept some in the audience sitting on their hands, McCain’s next statement brought them to their feet.
Finding a way to marry a soft Clinton jab with his fiscal conservative credentials and Vietnam war record, McCain pointed out that the New Yorker had sought to include an earmark for a Woodstock museum.
“Now, my friends, I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time.”
The last line brought about a torrent of applause and a rarely-seen-at-a-debate standing ovation from the entire crowd.
It was the most electrifying moment at an event that was clearly organized around the top-tier candidates.
While the lesser-knowns were brought into the conversation more toward the end, they were largely used as foils for the front-runners.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican, didn’t get a question until 25 minutes in, and when he did likened himself to “a bookend.”
Actually, it was Thompson who was the real bookend. He opened the debate and closed it, responding in the final minutes to a tough question about his purported laziness.
Starting with his becoming "a father at 17" and going up through his effort to get John Roberts confirmed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Thompson ticked off his accomplishments.
"If a man can do all that and be lazy, I recommend it to everybody," Thompson said to loud applause.