BOCA RATON, Fla. – In a debate here Thursday, Republican White House hopefuls called on President Bush to embrace deeper tax cuts to stimulate the economy, as each sought to portray himself to Florida voters as the true conservative in a race that will shift to a nationwide test in less than two weeks.
The mostly civil forum came at a critical moment in the muddled GOP competition, and the five remaining candidates appeared eager to avoid some of the sharper differences that have sparked difficult exchanges. Instead, they played it safe and were often cordial to one another five days before Florida’s primary, which could end one or more of their candidacies.
Tuesday’s vote will be particularly important for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has staked his fading campaign on a win here. Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are seeking momentum and a springboard into the Super Tuesday contests on Feb. 5, when 21 states will hold GOP primaries or caucuses.
But rather than raucous exchanges about immigration or social issues, the three sought to appeal to Florida voters and burnish their credentials on the economy, an issue that has dominated their stump speeches as the stock market has tumbled in recent weeks.
“What it does is OK, and I would support it, but it doesn’t go far enough,” Giuliani said of the economic stimulus package that Bush and congressional leaders announced Thursday. “I think, in the face of what’s been going on, which obviously is a matter of serious concern, we should be very aggressive.”
McCain said he was “disappointed” with the stimulus plan because it does not include a proposal to make the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 permanent. Romney said of Bush’s proposal: “There’s a great deal that is effective in his plan. I just wish it went further.”
The debate was sponsored by MSNBC and moderated by NBC anchors Brian Williams and Tim Russert. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also participated in the 90-minute exchange at Florida Atlantic University.
Williams and Russert tried unsuccessfully several times to get the candidates to engage one another. Russert observed afterward that it appeared the candidates had made a “non-aggression” pact.
Instead, much of the debate was characterized by lighthearted moments, even when the rivals were offered a chance to question one another.
None took the opportunity to focus on an overly controversial issue, preferring instead to lob easy questions that gave the recipient a chance to recite portions of his stump speech.
In one of the debate’s awkward moments, Romney made an ambiguous comment about Bill Clinton when asked how he would run against the former president and his wife if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton wins the Democratic nomination.
“I frankly can’t wait, because the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House with nothing to do is something I just can’t imagine. I can’t imagine, the American people can’t imagine … ,” he said.