- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2008

MANCHESTER, N.H. — President Bush, whose name is almost never mentioned by Republican presidential candidates, re-emerged tonight as a major issue, with Sen. John McCain saying in a debate that the president deserves credit for preventing another terrorist attack against the United States.

“We are succeeding now in Iraq, but as we blame the president for the failed strategy, we should give him credit, we should give him credit for changing the strategy” by ordering the “surge” of troops, said the Arizona senator, who acknowledges he must win New Hampshire to keep his presidential aspirations alive.

During a 90-minute debate three days before New Hampshire holds the first primary of the 2008 presidential campaign, the five major candidates on the stage voiced support for Mr. Bush’s policy to stay the course in Iraq. Each said there will be a lengthy war against radical Islamic extremists bent on killing Americans, which will require executive courage and the ability to look beyond the polls.

White House hopeful Mike Huckabee, who won Iowa’s caucuses by nine points, once derided the president for having what he called an “arrogant” foreign policy, but last night he backtracked from those words.

“I was speaking to the fact that there were times when we gave the world the impression that we were going to ignore what they thought,” the former Arkansas governor said. “But the fact is, we’re going to do what is best for the American people.”

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who surprised political pundits by tying for third in Iowa after a lethargic campaign, disputed Mr. Huckabee’s new version.

“I think that maybe the governor’s rethought his comments. I don’t think our foreign policy has been arrogant. Presidents are not perfect. Policies are not perfect. But the bottom line is, we are in a global war with radical Islam.”

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, running a distant fifth in New Hampshire and banking on his national-security resume, also supported Mr. Bush’s decisions.

“I think the president got the big decision of his presidency right — the big decision that he made on September 20th, 2001, when he put us on offense against Islamic terrorism,” he said.

Mr. Giuliani blamed former President Bill Clinton for dismantling the U.S. military by cashing in on the “peace dividend” “one of those nice-sounding phrases, very devastating.”

He implied that Mr. Clinton had been weak against terrorism, and applauded Mr. Bush’s strong stance against it. “I give him great credit for that because we had been dealing with Islamic terrorism incorrectly up until then. We had been on defense,” he said.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who lost his monthslong lead to Mr. McCain in the latest state poll and now trails by six percentage points after his second-place finish in Iowa, also supported Mr. Bush.

“The president is not arrogant,” he said, looking at Mr. Huckabee. “The president has acted out of his desire to keep America safe, and we owe him a debt of gratitude for keeping this country safe over the last six years.”

ABC News debate moderator Charles Gibson said he was going to violate his own rules and allow a question on video. He then showed Mr. Bush from his Dec. 20 White House press conference, posing a question to aspirants to his job.

“If I were asking questions to people running for office, I’d say: ‘What are the principles that [they] will stand on in good times and bad times?’” He said he would be “very hesitant” to support somebody who relied on opinion polls for making decisions.

Mr. McCain said that he alone among the Republican candidates supported the president’s surge of troops into Iraq, even as his poll numbers plummeted over the summer. “That was a low point, but I stuck to it. I didn’t change. I didn’t say we needed a secret plan for withdrawal. I said that we can prevail.”

Mr. Giuliani said what the president “had in mind is that at the core of leadership is knowing what you believe, standing for something. … Too many people in politics today put their finger up and go with the poll.”

The most heated portion of the debate occurred when the candidates discussed a top Republican issue — illegal aliens.

When Mr. Romney accused Mr. McCain of supporting amnesty for the 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in the United States, the senator said caustically, “Governor, you can spend your whole fortune on attack ads, but it still won’t be true.”

The race in New Hampshire has changed quickly. Polls taken before the Iowa caucuses showed Mr. Romney and Mr. McCain in a dead heat, but the Arizona senator, who tied for third in Iowa, received a much larger bounce than the former Massachusetts governor.

A poll taken in the two days after the Iowa caucuses puts Mr. Romney at 27 percent, while Mr. McCain has surged to 33 percent. All others trailed by double digits, with Mr. Giuliani at 14 percent and Mr. Huckabee at 11 percent, according to the CNN-WMUR poll of 313 likely voters in New Hampshire.

Mr. Huckabee, who won over Iowa evangelicals to win the nation’s first presidential contest, got virtually no bounce from the win, moving up just one point in the latest poll.

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