ORLANDO, Fla. — The top four Republican presidential hopefuls squared off in the party’s eighth debate last night — three of them refused to attack their opponents’ conservative credentials, but Fred Thompson was not so deferential.
VIDEO: McCain wins laughs, applause at GOP debate
“We got an hour and a half, maybe they can work on it,” the former U.S. senator from Tennessee said after Mitt Romney, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain dodged a question about who on stage was the most conservative.
Just minutes into the debate, Mr. Thompson took a swipe at Mr. Giuliani, saying the former New York City mayor supported federal funding for abortion, gun control and creating havens for illegal aliens.
“He sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues,” he said.
With that, the attempt by the three other candidates to adhere to Ronald Reagan”s 11th commandment — “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican” — was quickly jettisoned.
Mr. McCain was first out, taking a swipe at Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
“You’ve just spent the last year trying to fool people about your record. I don”t want you to start fooling them about mine,” he said, waving his hand at Mr. Romney. “I stand on my record of a conservative.”
Mr. Giuliani fired back at Mr. Thompson, saying: “Fred has problems, too” — abandoning his diplomatic stance after answering the debate”s first question — whether he was more conservative than Mr. Thompson — by saying “I can”t comment on Fred.”
The former New York mayor charged that Mr. Thompson was the “single biggest obstacle” in the Senate to legislation limiting the ability of individuals filing lawsuits to recover unlimited damages.
“He stood with the Democrats over and over again” on the issue, he said.
Mr. Thompson, in turn, took a swing at Mr. Romney after one of the debate moderators said the former governor had run “to the left” of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in his failed 1994 Senate bid.
“Actually, Mitt, I didn”t know there was any room to the left of Ted Kennedy. In fact, I didn”t know there was any room to the right of him, either.”
Mr. Romney smiled sheepishly.
But the intraparty battle quickly gave way to the broader war against the Democrats and their front-running candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Asked whether she was fit to be commander in chief, Mr. Romney replied, “I”d vote no.”
“I don”t want her as commander in chief. I don”t believe she has the experience in leadership and running something of the scale of our military to be the commander in chief of this nation,” he said. “She has never run anything.”
Mr. Giuliani poked fun at Mrs. Clinton, to the delight of the 3,000 hard-core Republicans in the packed hall at the Shingle Creek hotel. He quoted her saying: “I have a million ideas. America cannot afford them all.” The audience howled.
“No kidding Hillary — American can”t afford you,” he said to applause.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a second-tier candidate who this weekend won acclaim from conservatives in Washington during the Values Voter summit, also took aim at the Democrat.
“I like to be funny, let me be real honest with you. There”s nothing funny about Hillary Clinton being president,” he said to cheers.
U.S. Reps. Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul also participated in the debate.
Mr. McCain, who said he would face off with Mrs. Clinton over national security, also mocked her recent attempt to spend $1 million on a Woodstock Museum, commemorating the famous 1969 rock concert.
“Now my friends I wasn’t there. I”m sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event,” he said.
“I was tied up at the time,” he deadpanned, and the audience stood. Mr. McCain, the senator from Arizona, was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
The latest debate came with just 10 weeks before the Iowa caucuses on for Jan. 3. While the last debate among the candidates found Mr. Giuliani, who has a wide lead in national polls, seeking to face off only with Mr. Romney, who leads the polls in early voting states, all four top-tier candidates mixed it up.
On homosexual “marriage,” Mr. Romney said he supports a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman because “I want to make sure that our kids have a mom and a dad.”
Mr. Giuliani said he doesn’t think there is a need for such an amendment “at this point,” but he expanded his view to say that if states begin to pass laws allowing “gay marriage,” he would support an amendment.