MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — The presidential campaign turned South on Thursday, as Republicans vied over who could offer the toughest language on Iran and traded barbs over who's the true conservative heir to Ronald Reagan.
The candidates also took turns offering proposals to shore up an economy that's showing signs of trouble and grabbing increased attention from voters. All insisted that a recession could be averted, but only with Republican policies on energy, spending and taxes.
"This is a rough patch, but I think America's greatness lies ahead of us," said Arizona Sen. John McCain in a refrain echoed across the stage.
The 90-minute debate televised on the Fox News Channel marked the turn of the Republican campaign to two almost simultaneous contests — with voting next in Michigan on Jan. 15 and in South Carolina on Jan. 19.
Candidates looked for punchy one-liners to grab attention, backed up by serious proposals on economic and foreign policy issues, all aimed at different groups of voters.
In one moment that could resonate with Christian conservatives who could dominate South Carolina voting, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee forcefully defended an earlier statement backing the biblical admonition that wives should submit to their husbands.
"I'm not the least bit ashamed of my faith or the doctrines of it.� I don't try to impose that as a governor, and I wouldn't impose it as a president," he said as the audience at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center erupted in applause.
"But I certainly am going to practice it unashamedly, whether I'm a president or whether I'm not a president."
He went on to explain that the Bible also commands husbands to submit to their wives and that marriage requires each spouse to give 100 percent to the other.
While all the candidates appealed for support, the debate at times looked like two smaller debates — one between Huckabee and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson — and one between McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
One of the most animated exchanges came when the candidates were asked whether they backed the U.S. Navy's cautious response when Iranian boats harassed U.S. military vessels in the Persian Gulf recently.
The candidates backed the U.S. naval commanders.
But Huckabee said that anyone who challenges the Navy again should be prepared to go to the "gates of hell." Thompson jumped in, saying anyone testing the U.S. Navy might soon meet the "virgins" that Islamic terrorists expect to meet in heaven.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas called the bellicose language frightening and reminiscent of the reaction to an alleged naval exchange in 1965 that led to the Vietnam War. "I would certainly urge a lot more caution than I'm hearing here tonight," Paul said.
Romney cracked that Paul should stop reading Iranian propaganda, drawing what sounded like some boos from the audience and a steely glare from Paul.
Thompson took on Huckabee at another point, calling him a liberal and saying that Huckabee's criticism of President Bush's foreign policy amounted to a "blame America first" philosophy.
"That's not the model of the Reagan coalition, that's the model of the Democratic Party," Thompson said to applause. Candidates invoked Reagan's name more than 30 times, for themselves or against their rivals.
"The Air Force has a saying that says that if you're not catching flak, you're not over the target," Huckabee responded. "I'm catching the flak — I must be over the target."
Romney and McCain, locked in a close battle for next Tuesday's Michigan primary, traded jabs over the loss of jobs in the auto and manufacturing industries.
Romney criticized McCain for telling Michigan voters that some U.S. jobs have disappeared and won't come back. "I'm going to fight for every single job, Michigan and South Carolina," he said.
"Sometimes you have to tell people things they don't want to hear," McCain responded. "There are some jobs that aren't coming back to Michigan. There are some jobs that aren't coming back to South Carolina."
He said, however, that he would help those who lost their jobs.
The emphasis on the economy underscored the shifting politics of the campaign, as the stock market starts the new year with sharp losses and the race turns to Michigan and South Carolina, where the economy has risen as an issue in the eyes of voters.
All the candidates said they'd take several steps to boost the economy, including energy policies to curb gas prices and an end to the subprime mortgage crisis.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said he'd push through the "biggest tax cut in history." Huckabee said he'd cut income tax rates and control education and health care costs. McCain said he'd make the Bush tax cuts permanent and control federal spending. Romney said he'd cut middle-class taxes.