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For Republicans, Debate is a Civil Affair

Huckabee and McCain at the Des Moines Register debate. (Getty).

DES MOINES, Dec. 12 -- Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, whose surging campaign in Iowa has shaken up the Republican presidential race, glided through a 90-minute debate here Wednesday almost untouched by his opponents in a session notable for its lack of engagement and virtual absence of sharp disagreements.

Huckabee competed with former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson for the highlight moments of a debate that moved rapidly through such topics as the national debt, education and global warming, but which by the sponsor's decision, ruled out questions about two of the biggest issues in the campaign, the Iraq war and illegal immigration.

Huckabee has come under fire this week from former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who until recently was the clear front-runner in the competition to win the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and who has counted on victories here and in New Hampshire to launch him toward the nomination.

In a new television ad this week, Romney challenged Huckabee's past positions on immigration. But the closest the two came to disagreeing publicly during the debate was when Huckabee touted his education record in Arkansas and Romney responded, "I don't believe you had the finest record of any governor on education in America."

The Huckabee surge looms as a major threat to Romney, whose strategy is dependent on victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Huckabee used the debate to issue a call for national unity. To a question for all the candidates about their first-year agendas as president, Huckabee said every one of candidates had worthy goals but none could accomplish them without bringing the country together.

"I think the first priority of the next president is to be a president of all the United States," he said. "We are right now a very polarized country, and that polarized country has led to a paralyzed government. We've got Democrats who fight Republicans, liberals fighting conservatives, the left fights the right. Who's fighting for this country again?"

Thompson, who has been struggling to reenergize his campaign, had one his best debates as he repeatedly called on Americans to recognize the threats to national and economic security that now face the country. "I'm going to take a chance on telling the truth to the American people," he said.

Thompson also brought the debate to a temporary halt early in the proceedings when moderator Carolyn Washburn, editor of the Des Moines Register, asked for a show of hands among the candidates on the question of whether they believed global warming was real. "You want a show of hands. I'm not going to give it to you," Thompson replied.

That moment encapsulated the tug and pull that existed through much of the debate, as the candidates were pressed to keep their answers to 60 seconds or 30 seconds or in one case to 15 seconds and they repeatedly sought to provide fuller answers.

During the debate, Romney presented himself as the most broadly conservative in the field of Republicans. He attempted to stay optimistic about the future and focused on his own experience as a governor and business executive.

"On the private sector, where I spent the first 25 years of my life and most of my career, you learn how to focus on the things that are most important and you get rid of the things that aren't," he said

He sounded a slightly more populist theme than he has in the past, perhaps reacting to Huckabee, who has long talked about the need to lift up the poorest citizens. Romney said he doesn't "stay awake at night worrying about the taxes that rich people are paying, to tell you the truth. I'm concerned about the taxes that middle class families are paying. They're under a lot of pressure."

Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose national poll lead is shrinking and who has competed only sporadically in Iowa, was asked about allegations involving the allocation of security expenses incurred when he was having an affair with the woman who is now his wife.

Asked how he would assure transparency as president given what happened in New York, he replied, "I haven't had a perfect life. I wish I had. And I do the best that I can to learn from my mistakes. But as far as open, transparent government, I think I've had both a open, transparent government and an open, transparent life."

Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose campaign in Iowa was severely damaged last spring over immigration, offered himself as the most experienced person in the field to deal with the national security challenges and terrorist threats facing the country. "I have one guiding principle, one ambition, and that is to keep America safe and to achieve and maintain our greatness."

Asked whether his reputation as a maverick had led him to resist making compromises, he replied, "I came to Washington because I had a set of principles and ideals. But, at the same time, I have more legislative achievements than anybody on this stage, by far."

The debate was sponsored by the Des Moines Register and Iowa Public Television and will be moderated by Carolyn Washburn, the editor of the Register. The other participants were: California Rep. Duncan Hunter, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo and former ambassador Alan Keyes.

A Democratic debate will be held in Iowa on Thursday.

The only lighthearted moments in the debate came from Thompson, a former actor who seemed more at ease on the stage than he has in past forums.

Asked who in America is paying more than their fair share of taxes, Thompson joked, "My goal is to get into Mitt Romney's situation, where I don't have to worry about taxes anymore."

Romney is a former venture capitalist worth a reported $250 million.

Thompson also led the revolt among the candidates over Washburn's request for a show of hands on global warming.

"You want to give me a minute to answer that?" he asked.

"No, I don't," the moderator said.

"Well, then I'm not going to answer it," Thompson retorted.

For Thompson, doing well in Iowa is critical. Huckabee has captured the support of many of the conservatives who had earlier expressed admiration for Thompson. His erformance at the debate could help energize his campaign.

Thompson aggressively criticized the nation's largest teacher's union, the National education Association, calling them the biggest obstacle to improved schools. He repeated his plan to revamp Social Security several times. And he vowed to talk plainly to the American people.

"I'd tell them that judges are setting our social policy now in this country, and that's going to stop," he said. "And then I'd bring in members of Congress and say, look. I just got a mandate. We can work and cooperate together, or I'll go over your head to the American people."

Paul used the debate to continue his call for and end to the war in Iraq ad a smaller federal government. He said the federal education department should be eliminated and the government restrained by a new adherence to the Constitution.

"We have drifted so far from our Constitution that the government -- the Constitution was written to restrain our government," Paul said. "Yet, we've turned around, and the Constitution now is used to restrain the people."

Hunter and Tancredo offered the same rhetoric they have in the past. Hunter focused on the need for a strong military and Tancredo said uncontrolled immigration is turning the country into "a polyglot boarding house."

Keyes used his moment in the spotlight to deliver a lecture about the need for radical change in government. "I'm in favor of reducing global warming, because I think the most important emission we need to control is the hot air emission of politicians who pretend one thing and don't deliver," he said.

-- By Michael D. Shear and Dan Balz

By Post Editor  |  December 12, 2007; 5:00 PM ET
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