The candidates on Thursday mostly avoided frontal attacks on one another. But many of their responses were calibrated with an eye toward specific rivals, with front-runners Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney receiving the most fire.
In a marked departure from last week's Democratic presidential debate, the differences among candidates were most pronounced on social issues. In addition to abortion rights, those issues included federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and whether it was proper for Congress to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case in 2005.
The most significant rift in the field was one that has long been evident: that between ex-New York Mayor Giuliani and the other candidates on abortion. Giuliani was the lone candidate not to call for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
"It would be OK to repeal it," Giuliani said. "It would be OK also if a strict constructionist viewed it as precedent."
Though Giuliani said he was personally opposed to abortion, he said the decision to have one should reside with individual women.
"You have to respect a woman's right to make that choice differently than my conscience," Giuliani said.
On some hot-button issues, including the Schiavo intervention, the seven second-tier candidates attempted to portray themselves as more in line than the front-runners with the GOP's base. Giuliani, Arizona Senator McCain, and former Massachusetts Governor Romney all said or implied that Congress was wrong to intervene in the case, while Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and California Rep. Duncan Hunter defended the move.
On the issue of embryonic stem cell research--a cause embraced by Nancy Reagan--McCain stated his support while Romney said he opposed federal funding for new stem cell lines, as did several other candidates."I will not create new embryos through cloning or through embryo farming because that would be creating life for the purpose of destroying it," Romney said.
Candidates were also divided on the issue of immigration, with second-tier candidates like Hunter and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo taking a hard-line approach while McCain reiterated his commitment to "comprehensive immigration reform." That formulation implies a commitment to providing illegal immigrants with an opportunity to become U.S. citizens.
The Republicans were more united on the Iraq war, stating their support for President Bush's so-called surge plan while being critical of how the war was managed after the invasion.
On the question of Iran, one second-tier candidate took a very hard line; Hunter said that Iran is already moving military equipment across its border into Iraq."The United States has absolute license at this point," Hunter said, "to take whatever actions are necessary to stop those deadly instruments from being moved across the line."
Giuliani, meanwhile, said that "the use of military force against Iran would be very dangerous. It would be very provocative." Still, he said, the key to deterring Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons was to make clear that such a development would be unacceptable to the United States. In one of dozens of references to Reagan by the candidates last night, Giuliani said that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "has to look at an American president, and he has to see Ronald Reagan."
By Dan Gilgoff