Sunday, April 15, 2007

G.O.P. Candidates Lay Into Democrats, Not One Another

The New York Times
G.O.P. Candidates Lay Into Democrats, Not One Another

DES MOINES, April 14 — A parade of Republican White House candidates appealed for support from over 1,000 Iowa Republicans on Saturday, with two of their leading candidates — Senator John McCain and Rudolph W. Giuliani — assailing Democrats in Washington for pressing legislation that would set a timetable for bringing American troops back from Iraq.

It was the first time that the major Republican candidates had appeared at the same event — the annual Lincoln Day dinner, held in the sprawling ballroom of a downtown convention center here. For more than three hours, an audience of the state’s most active Republicans listened attentively as candidates proclaimed their strong opposition to abortion rights, called for a crackdown against illegal immigrants and warned that a Democratic return to the White House would result in higher taxes.

Although the event was called a “Unity Dinner,” the speeches reflected divisions among the Republicans on various issues, in particular abortion. Several candidates, including Mr. McCain of Arizona and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, presented themselves as lifelong opponents of abortion rights, drawing clear if unspoken contrasts with Mr. Giuliani, who supports abortion rights, and Mr. Romney, who once supported abortion rights but now opposes them.

But the strongest divisions emerged between the parties, as Mr. Giuliani and Mr. McCain offered attacks on Democrats for their efforts to bring an end to the war in Iraq. Apart from his remark about abortions — and a warm-up joke that involved Zsa Zsa Gabor — Mr. McCain devoted almost his entire nine-minute speech to arguing in support of the war, and attacking Democrats for opposing it.

“The Democrats want to set a date for withdrawal, which should be named a date certain for surrender,” Mr. McCain said. “There is no way we can prevail if we announce a date for withdrawal.”

“There is only one commander-in-chief of the United States and that is George W. Bush,” he continued, drawing some of the loudest applause of the night in response to one of the few times Mr. Bush was even mentioned. “I support him, and I believe in him.”

Mr. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, said the debate on the war had “intensified to me the difference between us and the Democrats.” He criticized Democrats whom he said opposed expanding domestic surveillance programs and wanted to weaken some provisions of the so-called Patriot Act, saying such moves were a retreat from the offensive on terrorism.

“If we back off that, then we are going back on the defense,” Mr. Giuliani said, “and we are no longer on the offense.”

Mr. Giuliani said he did not fault people who failed to grasp the threat of terrorism after the first attack on the World Trade Center or after the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole. “But after Sept. 11, it’s clear what we need to do to protect ourselves,” he said.

Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who is also a leading candidate for his party’s nomination, called for expanded spending on the military in order to toughen the United States against threats and warned about the threat of what he called Jihadists.

“They want to create the collapse of the United States of America and our retreat militarily,” he said.

“The Republican Party — and conservatism generally — are a philosophy of strength,” he said. “Military strength, economic strength, personal strength and family strength.”

The attendance at the event, both by the candidates and the state’s Republicans, reflected the importance Iowa has assumed in the presidential nominating process, and the intense interest voters here have in the race.

Several candidates said Republicans should avoid attacking one another and be prepared to band together around a nominee next year. “I would like you to select me,” Mr. Giuliani said. “But if you don’t, every single person who comes up after me — every single one of them — is better than Hillary, Senator Obama and Senator Edwards,” referring to Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as former Senator John Edwards. It was his only remark that drew loud applause from the crowd.

And one candidate, Jim Gilmore, the former governor of Virginia, drew soft boos when he mentioned candidates’ names in a not-so-subtle way of suggesting that three of the leading candidates had records of shifting positions on some issues that are crucial to conservatives.

“Don’t be fooled by people who come to you now and say they are conservative,” Mr. Gilmore said. “I can assure you that Rudy McRomney is not conservative, and he knows he is not a conservative.”

But the undercurrent was unmistakable, even when names were not used. Mr. Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, pointedly noted that he had always been an opponent of abortion rights and gun-control measures, and that he had supported President Bush’s tax cuts from the beginning.

“I’m not late in declaring that life begins at conception and we ought to protect human life,” he said. “I am not late in believing that the Bush tax cuts were good when they were first proposed, and they are still good today.”

Mr. Romney recently joined the National Rifle Association, as he sought to argue that he was a lifelong opponent of gun control measures. And Mr. McCain voted against many of Mr. Bush’s tax cuts, a position that has contributed to conservative unease with his candidacy.

Mr. Romney appeared on stage with his wife, Ann, and one of his sons, Josh, paying a long and warm tribute to his family. The tableau came immediately after Mr. Giuliani finished and served — by design or not — to remind Republicans of what has troubled some here about Mr. Giuliani: his three marriages and his estranged relationship with his son, Andrew.

The candidates were each given six minutes to talk, though that was one rule that none of the candidates, after spending hours flying here, seemed prepared to follow. Mr. Giuliani spoke for 17 minutes, though he left immediately after he was done, passing up the glad-handing of dinner attendees to leave Iowa for a fund-raiser in Missouri.

In a reflection of the potency of the immigration issue here, Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado drew some of the loudest applause of the night when he questioned his opponent’s commitment to cracking down on illegal immigrants and said he would never support a measure allowing them to stay in this country.

“I will never grant amnesty to illegal immigrants,” Mr. Tancredo said.

Marc Santora contributed reporting.