WASHINGTON — The highlight of campaign '08 this week was Wednesday night's debate among eight Republican presidential candidates on CNN, featuring video questions gathered by the Internet site YouTube.
The candidates staged a slam-bang free-for-all, easily the liveliest debate of the campaign so far by either party. They tore into each other over illegal immigration, torture, taxes and much more.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney set the tone from the outset, slamming each other for allegedly being soft on illegal immigrants. Giuliani accused Romney of displaying "a holier-than-thou attitude." He said that Romney's employment of a firm that included undocumented immigrants as lawn-service workers meant that Romney had a "sanctuary mansion."
Romney insisted that Giuliani had welcomed illegal immigrants into New York as mayor and coddled them.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona delivered a passionate denunciation of using "waterboarding" in interrogations. He said flatly that it is torture, illegal and beneath the dignity of the United States. His voice dripped with contempt for Romney, who'd said that while he opposes torture, he didn't think it appropriate for a presidential candidate to address any specific method.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was treated as a front-tier candidate for the first time, getting more questions than usual and coming under attack from his rivals. Both developments reflected his recent rise in Iowa polls, where he's in contention for first place.
A former Southern Baptist preacher, Huckabee approached eloquence when answering whether the Bible is literal truth. He said he thinks it is the word of God, but that some passages are allegorical, and ultimately that because it is "a revelation of an infinite God," no mere human being can ever understand it completely, and "if they do, their God is too small."
BEST LINES FROM DEBATE:
- Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, on why the video he submitted to CNN to show during the debate was an attack ad against rivals Romney and Huckabee: "I wanna give my buddies here a little extra air time."
HEALTH CARE DUEL
Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois continued jousting over health care this week. Clinton, who says her health plan would cover all Americans, criticized Obama's plan for not providing universal coverage.
"He's been saying there's no difference between our plans," Clinton said in a Des Moines, Iowa, speech. "But his plan would leave at least 15 million Americans uninsured."
Obama's campaign hit back at Clinton's Achilles' heel: the failure of her own effort to pass universal health care during her husband's administration.
"Demonizing anyone who doesn't share her exact plans on health care is exactly why Hillary Clinton flunked the opportunity she had to pass universal health care in 1993," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. He said that Obama's plan makes health care affordable for all Americans rather than simply mandating all Americans to buy coverage.
HUCKABEE ON THE RISE
Huckabee took the No. 1 spot away from Romney in a Rasmussen poll of Iowa, signaling new volatility there after Romney had led by big margins all year. The poll put Huckabee at 28 percent, Romney 25, Giuliani 12, Thompson 11, Ron Paul 5 and McCain 4. Survey taken Nov. 26-27. Error margin: plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Huckabee, an afterthought until the past couple months, is moving up fast, not least because evangelical Christians like his background as a Southern Baptist preacher. Huckabee launched a new TV ad in Iowa this week that declares him a CHRISTIAN LEADER in all caps. A mid-November New York Times-CBS poll found that two-thirds of his Iowa supporters were evangelicals.
LEAVE BUSH PLAN BEHIND?
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, unveiled a new TV ad in Iowa this week, promising to scrap President Bush's signature education policy — No Child Left Behind — and to guarantee teachers a national starting salary of $40,000. He also backs creating a lot of national science and math academies.
RUDY'S POLICE BILLS
When Giuliani was New York's mayor, tens of thousands of dollars in travel expenses were billed to obscure city agencies from 1999-2001 as he was beginning an extramarital affair, the Politico Web site reported Wednesday. The bills were for police who accompanied Giuliani on 11 trips when he visited Southampton, N.Y., the Long Island town where his former mistress Judy Nathan, now his third wife, had a condo. At the debate, Giuliani said that as mayor he had a security detail 24/7 because of unspecified threats, that he had nothing to do with the paperwork of police expenses, and that as far as he knew, the expenses had been handled appropriately. Giuliani's relationship with Nathan was front-page tabloid fare in those days, and thus not news, but the billing arrangement for police expenses was a new disclosure. His campaign denied any attempt to hide anything.
RFK JR. JOINS TEAM HILLARY
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. endorsed Clinton this week, giving her the blessing of one of the most revered names in Democratic politics, one generation removed. Kennedy, an environmental activist, said in a statement released by Clinton's campaign: "Hillary Clinton has the strength and experience to bring the war in Iraq to an end and reverse the potentially devastating effects of global warming.
"I watched proudly as Hillary won over New Yorkers across the state in her race for the Senate seat my father once held. Since then, she's been re-elected in a landslide victory and proven that she is ready to lead this nation from her first day in office. Hillary will inspire the real change America needs." Kennedy's father, Robert F. Kennedy, was a New York senator and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination when he was assassinated in 1968. Kennedy campaigned for Clinton in Iowa on Thursday.
LOOKING AHEAD: Most Democratic candidates appear at two forums in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday and at an NPR debate there on Tuesday afternoon.
McCain spends the next week in New Hampshire, a sign that he's staking his campaign on the state's Jan. 8 primary. Huckabee is there this weekend. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California is in South Carolina this weekend, while Thompson raises money in California.