- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 6, 2007

President Bush took a bruising last night from the Republicans running for their party’s 2008 presidential nomination, with the 10 candidates accusing him of losing his principles and failing the country on spending and immigration.

“The president ran as a conservative and governed as a liberal,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, while Rep. Duncan Hunter accused Mr. Bush of deliberately delaying building a border fence.

“I think they slowed the fence down so that they could come out with the amnesty at the same time, put the two together, and the Bush-McCain-Kennedy bill would then be accepted by conservatives and liberals alike,” the California Republican said in a two-hour debate in New Hampshire, aired on CNN.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas all said Mr. Bush’s biggest mistake in recent years was overspending and growing government.

“Republicans became Democrats,” Mr. Giuliani said.

Several candidates also blasted Mr. Bush for the way his administration handled the war in Iraq once dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted.

It was the harshest the candidates have been as a group toward Mr. Bush so far in this campaign and the criticism comes as the president is feuding with conservatives, whom he accused last week of trying to “frighten people” over immigration.

Immigration was the deepest dividing line among the candidates last night, with Mr. McCain and Mr. Brownback alone defending the bill now pending in the Senate that would offer a path to citizenship to the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in the country.

Mr. Giuliani called the bill “a typical Washington mess,” while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said it was “simply not fair” to give illegal aliens a special path to citizenship.

“The point is, every illegal alien, almost every one, under this bill gets to stay here,” he said.

Mr. McCain defended the plan as better than the status quo, and said his main goal was to work with Democrats to find a bill that can pass.

“If someone else has a better idea, I’d love to have them give it to us,” Mr. McCain said, at which point several hands shot up among his fellow candidates.

When Mr. Giuliani described his own principles for a bill, including an I.D. card for future workers and legalization for illegal aliens, Mr. McCain shot back, “Rudy, you just described our legislation.”

The debate was scattershot, covering a broad range of issues but failing to expose many differences between the candidates.

Among the points of agreement were:

All who were asked said they would consider the option of using tactical nuclear weapons to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon.

None said they would overturn the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy excluding homosexuals from serving openly in the military.

All said English should be the official language, though Mr. McCain, while saying “I think it’s fine,” noted that the U.S. has made treaties with American Indian nations that respect their own languages.

Most also agreed that the troop surge in Iraq must be given a chance to succeed, although they said the president and his administration bungled the aftermath of initial military operations there.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Brownback acknowledged that they voted to go to war in Iraq without having read the National Intelligence Estimate documenting what the intelligence community did and did not know about that nation’s weapons programs.

The field attacked the three top-tier candidates time and again for failing to uphold conservative principles, with Mr. Hunter saying each has sided with the most liberal elements of the Democratic Party on issues such as guns and immigration.

“I think we need to move away from the Kennedy wing of the Republican Party,” Mr. Hunter said.

Mr. Brownback, Mr. Hunter and Mr. Tancredo all said they would pardon Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr. Mr. Giuliani said the 30-month sentence handed down yesterday was excessive and would argue in favor of a pardon, while the others said they would want to review the case.

The evening had a few light moments, including Mr. McCain lapsing into Spanish minutes after he said English should be the official language of the country.

At another point Mr. Giuliani, who was raised Catholic, was answering a question about a bishop’s criticism of his position on abortion. At exactly that moment, a lightning strike played havoc with the audio system.

“Look, for someone who went to parochial schools all his life, this is a very frightening thing that’s happening right now,” the former mayor joked.

Also participating were former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin and James S. Gilmore III of Virginia and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

Mr. Giuliani repeatedly took control of the debate, posing questions of his own and shaping the campaign as a contest between himself and Democrats, whom he accused of failing to understand the fundamental threat the United States faces.

“They don’t seem to have gotten beyond the Cold War,” Mr. Giuliani said. “This war is not a bumper sticker, this war is a real war.”

When asked whether in hindsight invading Iraq was the right move, Mr. Romney seemed to falter, saying it was a “null set” question with too many variables that couldn’t be answered.

“We did what we did. We did the right thing, based on what we knew at the time,” he said.

But Mr. Giuliani jumped on the question, saying the invasion was “absolutely the right thing to do.”

“It’s unthinkable you would leave Saddam Hussein in charge,” he said.

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