Monday, August 6, 2007

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.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson sparred with Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado over the congressman’s threat to bomb Mecca in Saudi Arabia, a holy site for Muslims, in retaliation if Islamic extremists detonate a nuclear weapon against the United States.

“Bombing religious artifacts and religious holy sites would do nothing but unify 1 billion Muslims against us,” Mr. Thompson said.

But Mr. Tancredo shrugged off that criticism, as well as a rebuke last week from the State Department, which called his remarks “reprehensible.”

“The State Department — boy, when they start complaining about things I say, I feel a lot better about the things I say,” he said.

On Iraq, the field generally agreed the United States needs to remain engaged, with the exception of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who has given a voice to antiwar Republicans.

“Just come home. We just marched in. We can just come back,” he said.

Countering Mr. Paul, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California said the situation in Iraq is improving, and he took a shot at the Democratic presidential field, which he said is ignoring that, particularly the success of Marines in Anbar province.

“Not a single Democrat candidate paused in their rush for the exit to say to our Marines, ‘Good job. You guys are fighting and achieving, with blood, sweat and tears, what this country needs,’ ” Mr. Hunter said.

Sen. John McCain sounded like a single-issue candidate, tying disparate issues back to Iraq and national security — including when he was asked about U.S. policy on abortion.

“The respect and commitment to the rights of the unborn is something I’ve fought for, and it has a lot to do with national security. It says very much what kind of country we are,” he said.

Mr. Romney had the most memorable line of the debate, attacking Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama’s recent pledge to sit down with U.S. enemy leaders as president, then a week later saying he would also retain the right to attack inside Pakistan, which is an ally.

“I mean, he’s gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week,” Mr. Romney said.

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