Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush said Friday that he would "liberate the (Panama) Canal if I have to" to protect American interests. The front-runner and Sen. John McCain also clashed sharply over taxes in the second GOP debate in as many nights.
"It's fiscally irresponsible to promise a huge tax cut that is based on a surplus that we might not have," McCain said to the Texas governor standing a few feet away on a debate stage.
Bush retorted that his plan was better than McCain's for lower income taxpayers, and added firmly: "There is enough money to take care of Social Security. There is enough money to take care of the basic services of government, and there is enough money to give the people a substantial tax cut. And that's what I intend to do."
Appearing in a state with substantial military facilities and numerous military retirees, the GOP contenders also sharply criticized Democratic presidential contenders for saying they would make sure that gays can serve openly in the military.
Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes led the attack, and Keyes said he would renew a ban on gays in the military that was in effect until Bill Clinton won the White House. He challenged McCain to join him, but the Arizona senator refused. He said he would stick with the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Bush, McCain, Keyes, Bauer and the two other contenders, Steven Forbes and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, met in a warehouse outside the South Carolina capital city before an occasionally raucous audience that booed at questions deemed to be impertinent.
One such question went to Bush in the opening moments, and concerned the Confederate flag, which flies atop the Statehouse.
"I believe the people of South Carolina can figure out what to do with this flag issue," the Texas governor replied, declining to take sides in a racially-tinged issue. Moderator Brian Williams sought to pursue the issue, but the crowd booed louder, and Bush merely repeated that he thought it was an issue for South Carolinians to decide.
McCain, who has campaigned hard in the state, defended anew the letters he has written to federal agencies on behalf of campaign donors. "Whenever a constituent of mine or a citizen ... can't get an answer ... I believe that people like me should weigh in," said McCain, who wrote the letters in his capacity as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
The senator was addressing a question about an Associated Press story detailing a letter he wrote last year on behalf of Ameritech, which was seeking permission to merge with SBC, another phone company.
The letter-writing issue is a troubling one for McCain, whose candidacy has flourished on the basis of his call for a ridding the nation's political system of the influence of big-monied special interests.
Bush and McCain were the only two asked about the Confederate flag, and the two men bth said it was up to residents of the state to decide.
Several of the contenders tackled another volatile South Carolina issue, a proposed state-run lottery.
Bauer said he was opposed, adding, "the gambling industry is corrupting our culture."
Forbes harkened back to the lessons learned in his home state of New Jersey, saying intending to use a lottery to fund education improvements -- as proposed in South Carolina -- is "a false deal."
Keyes was emphatic. "If you solicit my advice I'll tell you this: All governments everywhere -- federal, state, local -- should get out of the business of putting a corrupting, regressive tax on the backs of their people," he said.
As he has numerous times in the campaign, Bauer stressed his unalterable opposition to abortion, saying that even if a relative were raped, "I would explain she couldn't make right the terrible thing that happened to her by taking the life of an unborn child."
Keyes was passionate on the same subject. Asked whether he would rather face another Democratic administration or live with a pro-choice Republican in the White House, he said, "I don't think that has to be out choice. ... This party was born in principle. This party will die if it doesn't stand by its decision of principle."
The debate produced a flourish or two -- the contenders fielded questions submitted by the Internet, for example. And for the first time in their campaign, they were asked about their own charitable giving.
Hatch said he and his wife give away about 11 percent of their income.
The crowd booed loudly when the contenders were asked to admit to the biggest mistake of their lives. Steven Forbes referred to editorials he wrote long ago advocating raising the gasoline tax. McCain mentioned his involvement in the Keating Five scandal of several years ago; Bush joked about having signed off on a notoriously bad trade of ball players when he ran the Texas Rangers.
Keyes interjected that the question itself was out of bounds -- and the crowd agreed heartily.