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The Running Ticket Blog: The GOP Debate Live

January 30, 2008 |  5:22 pm

CNN's Anderson Cooper began tonight's debate among the Republican White House contenders with an effort to get them to run against President Bush (still their party's titular leader), but only the two candidates with little chance of winning the nomination -- Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul -- went in that direction.

Cooper used the formulation Ronald Reagan famously used against then President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 campaign -- "are we better off than we were 4 years ago" -- to ask the candidates if they could say the country was better off than it was since Bush took office.

Mitt Romney ducked, noting that he isn't running on Bush's record. He then touted his economic record as governor of Massachusetts.

John McCain answered that, overall, he thought the nation was better off, but adding it's facing "a very serious challenge" on the economic front now.

Huckabee and Paul said the country was NOT better off, but they spread the blame to Congress, as well.

-- Don Frederick

*

Good little zinger there by McCain. Romney was running down a long list of how the Arizona senator is not conservative--voting against the 2 Bush tax cuts, etc. And Romney ended by saying: "If you get endorsed by the N.Y. Times, you're not a conservative."

To which McCain added, "Let me just say, Governor, I was endorsed by your two hometown newspapers."

--Andrew Malcolm

*

Is this a sure sign that, as reports have it, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will be endorsing McCain on Thursday?

McCain was asked his opinion of the Bush administration's refusal to allow California to forge ahead with more aggressive rules the state wants to implement to combat the emission of greenhouse gases. McCain, who stood by Bush when asked about the president's economic question in the evening's first question (see below), split with him on this one -- as he would almost have to in order to have Schwarzenegger enlist in his camp.

McCain said that as a federalist, he believed in giving states wide latitude. He also criticized, as he has frequently in the past, the Bush administration for not being more aggressive in combatting global warming.

-- Don Frederick

*

Oh, my, Romney touches on the third rail without being forced to--changing entitlement. He notes they make up 60% of the federal budget now and will be 70% by second term of next president. Fred Thompson's the one Republican who offered a detailed Social Security reform plan. It's dangerous territory. but Romney quickly added, We're not gonna change the deal for seniors, but for those in their 20s and 30s.

--Andrew Malcolm

*

McCain tried to veer off subject, rather than provide a straight answer to a direct question, when he was asked about the subject that has bedeviled him throughout his latest presidential bid -- his advocacy in the Senate for a sweeping bill on immigration policy that included a path to citizenship for those who entered the country illegally.

Of late, he's been stressing the need for tougher border security before addressing the citizenship matter. But would he, he was asked, support the original bill if it came to the Senate floor today.

"It won't," he replied at first, an obvious dodge. He then almost literally mumbled that he wouldn't vote for it because the American people have made clear they first wanted improvements in border security.

Pressed to make clear whether he would again vote for the bill as it was first written in 2006, he again dodged. "My bill will not be voted on."

-- Don Frederick

*

As Tuesday's Florida primary neared, a mini-furor erupted in conservative circles over a report that McCain had indicated that, as president, he would push for Supreme Court nominees such as John Roberts but that someone like Samuel Alito might not be his cup of tea.

McCain tonight embraced both when asked his opinion of Reagan's appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor to the court (she disappointed conservatives on a number of fronts, most prominently her support for the Roe vs. Wade abortion decision). McCain expressed his pride in O'Connor, a fellow Arizonian, but then said he's favor nominees with more tired-and-true conservative records, such as Roberst AND Alito.

-- Don Frederick

*

I agree with Wm. Irvin in the comments below. What about the other 2 candidates. The moderators are letting McCain and Romney fight way too much over technicalities over what who said when about a phased withdrawal. Sure, they're trying to hurt each other with conservatives and national security, which McCain thinks is his strong suit.

Finally, they call on Rep. Ron Paul, who predictably explained how we shouldn't have been in Iraq in the first place. How we bomb bridges out overseas, then spend American taxpayers' money on rebuilding them when our own bridges are falling down of their own weight. Good pts all and applause lines. And he knows it. Part of his standard stump speech.

And then Mike Huckabee pleads for a question "for those of us down on this end of the table." Finally, he got some.

Wish they'd suddenly have the candidates ask each other a question or two.

McCain steps in and says the reality is we're gonna be in Iraq a long time, the real issue is American casualties, not whether they're present.

--Andrew Malcolm

*

Gimme a break. If you were watching on the left side of the screen just now, you could see, as Anderson Cooper asked yet another question of Romney/McCain, Huckabee throw up his hands and exchange a look of impatience with Cong. Paul, who understandably shook his head.

Cooper saw him so tossed Paul a question about being commander in chief. And Paul went down his familiar line of saying the govt. should not be running the economy, but lowering the taxes and not printing money "out of thin air."

--Andrew Malcolm

*

It's long been one of McCain's favorite phrases -- describing himself as a "foot soldier in the Reagan revolution." By our count, he's worked it into tonight's debate three times. And as, over the next few days, he tries to seal the deal with distrustful conservatives and stake out a commanding lead in the GOP race, he's likely to use it again and again and again. At some point, though, he might want to seek out a speechwriter for a bit of variety in pledging his fealty to Reagan.

-- Don Frederick

*

Don, you're absolutely right on McCain's phrasing. Another favorite of his: "I'm proud of my record" and calling everyone, even those he clearly dislikes, "my friend." Sarcasm doesn't work on TV. McCain wasn't acting exactly like a frontrunner here. He's always performed best as the underdog, which he isn't anymore.

We'll see how he adjusts to that new role.

Maybe McCain should have read the item we posted at noon here today, examining how many times each candidate cited Ronald Reagan's name. The lesson there: It's dangerous this time around. Rudy Giuliani was the Ronald Reagan-name-citing-record-holder for the 15 major GOP debates, saying it 44 times, including 10 whole times in one single answer on Jan. 10. For the graphic presentation of this phrase in those debates, check out the work in that item by The Times' Ben Welsh.

Don, so who do you think won this one?

--Andrew Malcolm

*

Well, Andy, my nod for the best answer of the night goes to Paul who, after McCain and Romney sniped at each other over what seems at heart a matter of semantics -- whether Romney last year expressed support for setting timetables for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq -- noted that they were "arguing technicalities of a policy they both agree with."

He went on: "They agreed going in (to Iraq), they agreed for staying, agreed for staying how many years, and these are technicalities.  We should be debating foreign policy, whether we should have interventionism or non-interventionism, whether we should be defending this country or whether we should be the policeman of the world, whether we should be, you know, running our empire or not and how are we going to have guns and butter."

Overall, it's hard to see that any dramatic moment occurred that will derail the momentum that seems to be gathering for McCain so, in that sense, it was a successful evening for him.

-- Don Frederick

*

The complete debate transcript is available here.

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