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At Second Debate, a Few Sparks Fly

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- After a relatively sedate first debate earlier this month, the ten presidential candidates came out swinging against one another in their second showdown here tonight.

The Republican presidential hopefuls gather on the debate stage Tuesday night at the Koger Center at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. (AP Photo)

Most of the attacks came from second-tier candidates -- particularly former Gov. Jim Gilmore (Va.) -- who were hoping to vault themselves onto center stage by picking a fight with one of the three frontrunners.

But for the first time in the campaign so far, two of the frontrunners -- Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- mixed it up.

Romney began the exchange by criticizing McCain's sponsorship of a comprehensive immigration reform proposal and went on to compare it to McCain's support for campaign finance reform.

McCain struck back quickly. "I have kept a consistent position on right to life," McCain said. "And I haven't changed my position on even-numbered years or have changed because of the different offices that I may be running for."

The other major back and forth of the night came between former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Rep. Ron Paul after the latter essentially insinuated that America invited the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Giuliani interrupted to call out Paul for his "extraordinary statement." He asked Paul "to withdraw that comment and tell us he didn't mean that." Paul demurred, but the audience's applause showed that Giuliani had struck a chord.

Aside from those two pointed exchanges, the debate proceeded much like the candidates' first gathering in California. The frontrunners by and large stood by President Bush's Iraq policies, and all pledged to overhaul Washington's attitude about spending.

Giuliani again faced considerable scrutiny over his support for abortion rights but did a better job of explaining his position and putting it in context than he had in the first debate. "I think we can agree we should seek reductions on abortion, Giuliani said. And he took credit for a 16 percent reduction in the number of abortions in New York City during his time as mayor and a 133 percent in adoptions. "There are ways we can work together to achieve results we all want."

McCain sought to paint himself as a pragmatic leader, willing to work across partisan lines to solve problems. On illegal immigration in particular, McCain sounded a bipartisan note. "What the American people expect us to do is to sit down and work this issue out," McCain said.

Romney was quizzed several times on his changing positions that could well be seen as politically motivated. Asked whether there was an instance where he had abandoned a position that's a proven winner among Republican primary voters, Romney noted his current support for the No Child Left Behind Act and how it contrasts with his 1994 call for the elimination of the Department of Education.

That's it for tonight. We're headed to the spin room and will be back Wednesday morning with a look at the debate's winners and losers.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 15, 2007; 11:07 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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