COLUMBIA, S.C.—Republican presidential candidates found their conservative credentials under fire Tuesday in a spirited debate that probed at their different backgrounds on such issues as abortion, gun control and taxes.
Their records came into play after most of the candidates worked to court conservatives by stressing their support for the U.S. effort in Iraq, condemning Democratic proposals for withdrawal, and vowing to rein in federal spending that soared under their own party's rule in Washington.
But former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore punctured the patina of conservative unity by stating that several of his nine rivals misled people about their own records during their first debate two weeks ago.
"Some of these people on this stage were very liberal in describing themselves as conservatives," Gilmore said.
Asked to name them, he at first declined, then said that former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani supports abortion rights, that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney enacted a big government health care plan, and that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee raised taxes.
Later, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado echoed the complaint, saying that several of his rivals only started taking a more conservative stand on issues such as abortion, gun control and illegal immigration after deciding to run for the Republican presidential nomination.
"I trust those conversions when they happen on the road to Damascus, not on the road to Des Moines,' he said.
The question of who is a true conservative underlies the entire campaign, as the party's conservative base finds fault with each candidate on at least one major issue.
"I have conservative values," said Romney, who's been accused of turning conservative after supporting abortion rights, gay rights and gun control earlier in his career. He noted that he supports the death penalty, English language immersion classes, and abstinence education.
Giuliani, under fire for supporting abortion rights and gay rights, said that he " ran the most conservative government in the last 50 years in New York City." He acknowledged his support for abortion rights, but stressed that he worked to reduce abortions, that they went down by 16 percent when he was mayor and that adoptions increased by 133 percent.
The independent group factcheck.org said, however, that adoptions actually rose by just 17 percent during Giuliani's terms.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona bristled when his credentials came under question.
"I have kept a consistent position on right to life. And I haven't changed my position on even-numbered years or . . . because of the different offices that I may be running for."
Several candidates also reached for the political safety of criticizing federal spending, which soared under Republican rule in the last six years, angering many conservatives.
McCain, for example, explained that he opposed some of President Bush's tax cuts—a sore point to many Republicans—"because we didn't rein in spending."
Republican spending hurt the party even more than the war in Iraq in last year's election losses, McCain said. "We spent money like a drunken sailor," McCain said to laughs, "though I never met a sailor, drunk or sober, with the imagination of my colleagues."
Huckabee said the Republican-led Congress "spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop," a reference to the Democratic presidential candidate's recent revelation that he'd billed his campaign for two $400 haircuts. That line got Huckabee applause.
Giuliani boasted that he cut taxes 23 times as mayor of New York while restraining spending. And he did that, he said, in a famously liberal city where cutting taxes and spending was even harder than it would be in Washington. "Washington is easier," he said.
Romney sidestepped a question about whether he flip-flopped on taxes, saying he balanced his state's budget without raising taxes and would do the same in Washington. "I'm not going to raise taxes," he said.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson also bragged that he cut taxes by $16.5 billion.
Gilmore also said he cut taxes as governor—without noting that his tax cuts left his state in dire financial straits.
Immigration divided the candidates as well. While all who spoke on the topic said enforcing tough border control is essential, McCain insisted too that comprehensive immigration reform must provide a path toward legal residence, which Tancredo and others denounced as amnesty.
Romney squirmed on the topic, saying he would send illegal immigrants home but also provide them a path to citizenship, and seemed to contradict himself in the process.
The 90-minute debate was held at the University of South Carolina, and televised on the Fox News Channel. It was moderated by Fox anchor Brit Hume.
Also participating were: Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
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