Republican hopefuls debate abortion, war

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Mitt Romney yesterday said his greatest mistake in life is that he used to be pro-choice on abortion, as he defended himself against attacks from fellow Republican presidential candidates.

“I get tired of people that are holier-than-thou because they’ve been pro-life longer than I am,” said Mr. Romney, who polls show leading the field here in Iowa, which holds the first nominating contest of the 2008 campaign.

Mr. Romney was responding to a question during the Republicans’ fourth presidential debate about automated phone calls being sponsored here by a rival campaign, which charged the former Massachusetts governor was pro-choice through 2005. Mr. Romney called the phone calls “completely wrong” and said he underwent a conversion to pro-life as governor.

He also retreated from his own attack in March on rival Rudolph W. Giuliani. He had criticized the former New York mayor for still supporting abortion rights and same-sex “marriage” and for opposing gun rights but says he has since learned more about his primary opponent’s positions.

He and Mr. Giuliani dominated the debate, tossing out the most memorable lines and together pressing Democrats on their positions.

Mr. Giuliani criticized Democrats for bad economic policy and bad judgment on national security.

“There is a liberal Democratic assumption that if you raise taxes, you raise money,” he said in response to a question about how to pay for infrastructure upkeep in the wake of last week’s bridge collapse in Minneapolis. “We should have a good program for doing it. But the kneejerk liberal Democratic reaction — raise taxes to get money — very often is a very big mistake.”

Still, other than the initial skirmish on abortion, yesterday’s debate, moderated by George Stephanopoulos and aired on ABC’s “This Week” program, was an unwieldy affair. It ranged across tax policy, national security and health care, but rarely delved deeply or exposed new positions among the field of nine.

Mr. Stephanopoulos did not ask about immigration, the issue that splits the Republican Party deeply, even though this was the first debate since the collapse of the Senate immigration bill that was backed by two senators on the stage yesterday.

After three debates, health care finally got attention, with the entire field siding with President Bush and against the proposed expansion of the federally funded children’s health insurance program that passed the Senate last week.

That bill was backed by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, but the candidates said it would move children who are currently covered under private insurance onto government rolls. Mr. Giuliani called it a step to “socialized medicine.”

When it came to specifics on health care, Republicans are far behind Democrats, many of whom have offered specific plans. Mr. Giuliani announced the beginnings of a plan last week, but yesterday most Republicans were far more interested in attacking Democrats’ proposals.

“You’ve got the Democrats doing a step-by-step march toward a socialized, one government-pay system,” said Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who said his own solution was “more market forces in health care.”

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said the solution has to be prevention, rather than treating illnesses.

“It’s almost like having a boat that’s taking on water, and rather than plugging the hole, we want to get a bigger bucket to take the water out of the boat,” he said.

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