August 5, 2007 12:57 PM
Thunder and rainbows at the Republican debate
View image Photo by M.E. Sprengelmeyer
There were severe storm warnings overnight.
Des Moines residents awoke Sunday to a downpour, some vicious wind gusts and an alert that a political tempest was blowing into town with all its fury.
Still, for at least a few minutes, a rainbow appeared to touch down on the Sheslow Auditorium at Drake University, where nine Republican candidates met for a morning television debate -- their last, full-fledged showdown before next Saturday's crucial Iowa GOP straw poll in Ames.
It wasn't all smiles and rainbows.
We were there with back roads coverage -- and a lesson on how this political journalist life is not as glamorous as some people might imagine.
Over at RockyMountainNews.com, we've posted a FULL STORY HERE on some of the Republican candidates repudiating Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado over his controversial remarks threatening Muslim holy sites.
But for some alternative highlights of Sunday morning's debate, look out below...
View image Photo by M.E. Sprengelmeyer
First of all, covering a debate in-person is not as dramatic as one might imagine. The studio audience was limited, so most reporters -- from outlets big and small -- watched the debate unfold in a classroom converted into a filing center. Only afterwards did reporters get a chance to swarm upon the candidates or their surrogates in the appropriately-named "spin room."
In Sunday's debate, conducted for ABC News' "This Week" program, moderator George Stephanopoulos seemed intent to draw out some of the simmering conflicts between GOP combatants.
The very first question focused on recorded telephone messages that Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas has placed to Iowa voters, questioning former Massachusetts' Gov. Mitt Romney's commitment to opposing abortion.
Sen. Sam Brownback
Brownback stood behind the attack, which also mentioned the small contribution that Romney's wife, Ann, once made to the abortion rights group Planned Parenthood.
"There's one word that describes that ad, and it's 'truthful.' That's a truthful ad. And that's what campaigns are about, too, George, is for as far as getting the truth out, expressing the differences between the candidates..."
Former Gov. Mitt Romney
But Romney said "virtually nothing" in the ad was true. He said that while he once was effectively "pro choice" on the abortion issue, he has spoken repeatedly about his conversion to the anti-abortion, "pro life...whole-life" position, and said that every action he took as Massachusetts governor supported that.
So, speaking of Brownback's ad, Romney said:
"The single word I'd use would be 'desperate' or perhaps 'negative.'"
So there, right off the bat, Stephanopoulos brought out some conflict.
But it didn't end there.
* * *
Stephanopoulos pressed Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado about his controversial strategy to deter Islamic terrorists from launching a terrorist attack on the United States by threatening to destroy the Muslim holy sites of Mecca and Medina.
Tancredo stood by his two-year-old statements on that topic -- which he raised on the campaign trail last week, sparking a new round of international protests. (How big a deal was it? CHECK THIS OUT.)
"My task as president of the United States is primarily to do one thing ... to
protect and defend this country. And that means to deter -- and I want to underline 'deter' -- any kind of aggression, especially the type we are threatened with by Al Qaeda, which is nuclear attack. I read the national intelligence estimate. I see what they are planning. And I'm telling you right now that anybody that would suggest that we should take anything like this off the table in order to deter that kind of event in the United States isn't fit to be president of the United States."
But that gave his Republican colleagues, starting with former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, a chance to repudiate him.
"I sincerely believe that bombing religious artifacts and religious holy sites would do nothing but unify one billion Muslims against us. It makes no sense."
Other Republicans, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, joined the criticism after the debate.
Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, called Tancredo's concept "appalling," adding:
"Historically, we've tried to avoid doing what the Nazis did, and that's bombing every kind of possible target. We've had this attitude (that) we don't do these things. There are some things that are off limits. What's next? The bombing of my religious shrine in the Baptist church: Kentucky Fried Chicken?"
Huckabee and Tancredo are among those currently in the second tier of the crowded Republican field who have been sparring in recent weeks, hoping to set themselves apart and gain momentum at next Saturday's non-binding straw poll in Ames, Iowa.
In the spin room, a reporter asked Huckabee if he thought Tancredo was xenophobic.
Said Huckabee: "However one wants to define it, it's the kind of thing that makes us say, we'd better keep shopping."
CLICK HERE for the full story on the Republican reaction to Tancredo's remarks.
* * *
One of the debate's more interesting lines of questioning concerned the role of the vice president and whether the contenders would give their running mates the sort of powers that Vice President Dick Cheney is presumed to have under President Bush.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona set the tone, first drawing a laugh with a trite description of the vice president's job description, and then, after a follow-up question, adding what some analysts interpreted as a reference to Cheney's reputation.
"The vice president really only has two duties. One is to cast a
tie-breaking vote in the case of a tied vote in the Senate. And the
other is to inquire daily as to the health of the president... Look, I would be very careful that everybody understood that there's only one president."
Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, another contender still hoping to break out of the bottom of the pack, used the question to highlight his experience.
"George, it depends on the credentials of the president. I served in Vietnam -- didn't do anything special, but I wore the uniform. I've been the chairman of the Armed Services Committee for the last four years. And my son has now done two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. I can look the American people in the eye and say, 'We're all in this together.' So I would not share the role of commander in chief with a vice president. If you've got other folks that have less background in
national security, they're going to need to have a vice president that they rely on much more."
Without naming any other candidates, Hunter implied that viewers should question the credentials of every other rival.
Brownback used the question to distance himself with the legacy of Bush -- an unpopular president with an even less popular vice president.
"George, I wouldn't delegate things to the vice president. But I would involve the vice president in a lot of things. But I think there's a key point here to look at. One is that Dick Cheney came in with a lot of experience. He came in with a lot of experience on defense, foreign policy issues. And I think the president over-relied on that. I think Dick Cheney has done an admirable job. I think the president (has) over-relied upon that."
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said Bush has the right to use Cheney "the way he sees fit." But then he looked back at history to describe how he wants to keep a vice president involved.
"And I'm comfortable that you select somebody who can step in on a moment's notice with experience, background, knowing what's going on. We can't have a kind of situation like we had in, you know, the 1940s with Harry Truman, where Harry Truman, thank God, turned out to be the
kind of president he was, but apparently he didn't even know about the Manhattan Project. You can't have that any longer."
* * *
The debate could not avoid the Iraq topic -- one that, according to Stephanopoulos, drew the largest number of suggested questions from members of the public.
Sen. John McCain
That meant another question for McCain, an ardent supporter of the current troop "surge" strategy, about the military situation and the difficulties of establishing a viable, stand-alone Iraqi government.
"They are making progress, and we are winning on the ground. And there are political solutions being arrived at all over Iraq today, not at the national level. I'm disappointed, of course, that the Maliki government has not done what they need to do. But I'll tell you, it's not only in the national interest of the Iraqis, it's an American national interest. We are winning. We must win. If we lose, there'll be catastrophic consequences and genocide, and we will be back. This is a seminal moment in American history. We must succeed."
Rep. Ron Paul
That line of questioning highlighted the most stark conflict in the Republican field -- one between Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and all the others.
While some, like Tancredo, express some concerns about the current strategy or propose their own alternatives (like Brownback's Iraq partition plan), Paul goes even further, saying the United States never had any business invading Iraq and calling for the troops to come home.
"Those individuals who have predicted these disastrous things to happen if we leave Iraq are the same ones who said, 'As soon as we go in, it will just be duck soup, it'll be over in three months and it won't cost us anything because the oil will pay for it.'"
* * *
Meanwhile, Paul, who once ran for president as the Libertarian Party nominee, also got a chance to give a rallying cry to his supporters who braved the rains and the winds to wave campaigns signs outside the debate hall.
It came when Paul got his chance to answer the question about the worst mistake of his life.
He said, as loudly as ever:
"The only mistake I made and continue to make is I don't speak forcefully enough for the cause of liberty and the cause of the Constitution. I'm working on it all the time."
* * *
For some instant analysis from a panel on ABC News, CLICK HERE.
And be sure to look for full coverage, including details on foreign policy disputes, in Monday's Rocky Mountain News.