Final GOP candidate debate before Iowa Caucuses

What follows is a live blog of today’s Des Moines Register "debate" among the Republican presidential candidates.  It is being broadcast live on Iowa Public Television; it will be re-broadcast at 7 p.m. (On an odd note, the lead-in program for the 1 p.m. live airing was "Big Comfy Couch" — a children’s program that at one point featured a huge talking flower.)

"We won’t talk a lot about issues like Iraq or immigration….Iowans say they know where the candidates stand," Carolyn Washburn, the DMR’s managing editor just told viewers, promising a few moments later not to "be a Grinch" about the time constraints, but vowing to cut the candidates off.

First question is about the nation’s "tsunami" of debt and whether it’s a threat to national security. 

"It’s a major problem," Giuliani says, calling for reduction in government spending and tax cuts.

Hunter says two debts are threat to national security, adding "trade loss" to the equation.  Hits at China.

Paul says it’s "absolutely a threat to our national security," warning the nation’s currency will soon be destroyed.  Warns US can’t afford Iraq war.

Tancredo also mentions trade imbalance, suggests oil imports held fuel terrorists.

Thompson says the debt is "bankrupting next generation," and squeezing military spending below traditional levels. 

Romney says "overspending" and "overpromises" in DC bad, but strikes optimistic cord about "politicies that promote" economic growth.  "if you want to see a strong America, you don’t look to Washington."

Huckabee says it is "most certainly" a national security threat.  Talks about a country’s need to feed, fuel and defend itself, warning that countries which "start outsourcing everything" lead to a country which is "enslaved."

McCain says military strength linked to a nation’s economic strength, mentions taxes, oil imports.  "We will in five years become oil independent," McCain promises if he’s elected.

Keyes calls for "cutting off the spigot" and abolishing the income tax, replacing with naitonal sales tax.

ashburn follows with question asking for more specifics about debt reduction.  Giuliani elaborates on previous answer.  Huckabee talks about reorienting health care spending in his answer as part of the equasion.  Romney is asked if he’d be willing to run a deficit.  Romney talks about private sector experience.  Thompson said military and infrastructure and R&D are three areas where he would allow deficit spending.

"But I’m going to take a chance of telling the truth to the American people," Thompson continues, saying he’d tackle Social Security and Medicare.  "I don’t think the American people are so selfish that we’re going to…kick the can down the road."  He’d also tell Warren Buffett he’d have to pay for his own health care.

"Who in this country is paying more than a fair share of taxes relative to everyone else?" Washburn asks.

Keyes calls his rivals "phonies" in his answer.  McCain calls for "reform of the tax code" and "We can’t raise taxes as our Democrat friends want."

Huckabee:  "Over 80 percent of the American people know the tax code is irreparably broken," he says, outlining the Fair Tax.

Romney:  "I don’t stay up late at night worrying about the taxes that rich people are paying," Romney says, adding he worries about middle income families who’re socked by taxes, energy costs, etc.

Thompson:  "My goal is to get into the Mitt Romney situation where I don’t have to worry about taxes anymore,"

Romney quips he wants to be an actor, like Thompson.

"You’re getting to be a pretty good actor," Thompson replied, drawing laughter.

"Takes one to know one," Romney says.

Giuliani holds up a sheet of paper, advocating a flat tax that could "be filled out on one page."

Now, candidates get a free swing, without a question.  McCain talks about his own judgment on Iraq.  Hunter talks about the border fence.

Back to questions.  How do you keep foreign markets open while protecting American jobs?

Paul talks about ending embargo with Cuba and how monetary system is linked to job losses. 

Romney calls for renegotiating certain trade deals, such as with China.  "I understand how we can build more strength in our economy," he says, mentioning his private sector experience.

Huckabee says job migration is a result of three things:  excessive taxation, regulation, and litigation.  Mentions that he probably can’t part Red Sea, but would tackle red tape.

Should we alter trade with countries which fail on human rights records?

"I’m the biggest free marketer and free trader that you will ever see," McCain says, adding "fiscal conservatives" cannot support subsidies.

Specific changes in NAFTA?

Giuliani says it’s "good thing" and has helped increase exports and "brought more jobs to America."

Thompson says free and fair trade is "backbone" of US economy and "enforce the agreements that we’ve got."

NAFTA "has been a disaster" according to Tancredo, saying it destroying Mexico’s economy — leading to wave of illegals across southern border.  "Our borders are now meaningless," he adds, attacking Mexican truckers being allowed to drive routes from Mexico and into US.

Hunter said trade surplus with Mexico has turned to a $15 billion trade loss.  NAFTA "a bad business deal," according to Hunter.

Paul and Thompson given their free swings.

Back to quesitons — a show of hands:  global climate change serious and caused by human activity?

"I’m not doing hand shows today," Thompson said.  "…Do you want to give me a minute to answer that?" Thompson said.

"No," Washburn said.

After a bit of quibbling, Washburn gives McCain a chance to answer the question.  McCain & Giuliani say "it’s real." 

"What impact on the economy would be acceptable to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?"

Romney says it’ll be good for the economy because it will shift country away from oil-based economy.  "But at the same time we call it global warming, not America warning," Romney adds, saying other countries should be required to

Keyes uses time to promote his own candidacy, saying rivals "represent the elite."

"I agree with Alan Keyes’ position on global warming," Thompson says, getting laughs.

"I think the most important emission we need to control is the emissions" from other candidates, Keyes replies.

Huckabee is asked to reply.  "We don’t own this Earth.  We are just stewards of it," he says.  "…We have done no harm if we take better care of this planet."

Hunter talks about incentives rather mandates.  "Ethanol’s not the greatest thing in showbusiness," he says.

Tancredo:  "I don’t believe in mandates….I believe the market is the best determinant," he says.

Tancredo gets his free swing to promote his candidacy, followed by Huckabee, who talks about politicians who forget they’re supposed to be part of the "servant class."

New topic:  education — K-12.

Giuliani advocates choice in K-12, as he says higher ed is working because students (and their parents0 choose where they’ll attend college while K-12 is "goverment-run" and not working as well.

Does federal goernment need to establish national goals?

Romney says NCLB was "right" to test kids and "have high standards."  Touts Mass. student scores.

Huckabee says education is a state issue, not a federal issue.  Feds can pay a "pivotal role" in ensuring "best practices" shared with states that are struggling. 

"Do I have to raise my hand" to get to answer? Keyes interjects.

"You get 30 seconds," Washburn replies.  Keyes complains that others got a minute, mentions "squabbling" between Huckabee & Romney over religion.

Paul says federal govt involved "for over 50 years" in education, attacks NCLB, advocates tax breaks for tuition to private schools.

Thompson asks for a rephrase of question.  "The biggest obstacle standing in the way is the NEA," he says, adding rich people have choice while poor parents don’t.

Tancredo, a former teacher, talks about getting rid of Dept of Ed, attacks Huckabee for saying he favors music and art education, says it’s not role of president to advocate that.

"If anyone doubts that the pres ought not use the bully pulpit," Huckabee responds, talking about being "the communicator in chief."

Romney adds "one small adjustment" to what Huckabee said. "I don’t believe you had the finest record" on student achievement, restates Massachusetts test scores, agrees with Thompson on NEA as obstacle.

"What do you believe you could accomplish in your first year as president?" is the next question.

Giuliani:  win war on terror, begin illegal immigration crackdown, stimulate economy with tax cuts, reduce size of fed govt, move toward energy independence.

Hunter:  strengthen US military, deal with North Korea/Iran nuclear capabilities, China as a super power, strenghtening the US/Mexico border, bring back industrial base of US.

Paul:  there’s a limit for what you can do in one year; end the war & bring our troops home, become diplomatically credible around the world, no more preemptive war.

Tancredo:  free the border agents, begin process of securing borders, enforce law against businesses hiring illegals, use bully pulpit that it’s a war against radical Islam (not war on terror).

Thompson:  it wouldn’t take me a year, I’d go before American people & tell them the truth — haven’t face nature of terror threat, economic threat of entitlements, judges writing laws.

Romney:  "I want to do more than talk in my first year; I want to get things done." win war on terror, reign in entitlements, federal spending, reduce tax burden, energy independence, get health insurance for every citizen in America**

Huckabee:  first priority is to be a president of all the United States.  He says, "We are right now a very polarized country and that paralyzes," the country.  If that doesn’t happen, we’ll get nothing done, according to Huckabee. 

McCain:  first obligation is making America safe, second thing is "to restore trust & confidence in govt" by fixing Social Security, Medicare, borders.

Keyes:  concentrate on restoring sovereignty of American people, promises exec order to protect unborn, abolish income tax, seal borders.

Last three candidate statements, first Romney who thanks Iowans and mentions how much he’s been here.  "Anybody who’s worried about the future of this land just needs to come here" to Iowa, he adds.  Keyes is next, talks about restoring self-govt.  Giuliani is last, talks about being "tested" by crisis like 9/11 and in jobs in Justice Dept, touts "bold leadership" and presents himself as "optimistic leader."

Now, Washburn talks about core values being of great importance to voters, plays candidate videos which are on Register’s website. 

Next questions "entirely about character and leadership."  Washburn asking about expenses for security for Judi before they were married.

"All that information was available and known to people, known to people," Giuliani replies.  "…I’m used to being analyzed.  I haven’t had a perfect life.  I wish I had…I can’t think of a public figure that’s had a more transparent life than I’ve had."

Keyes talks about being "authentic" and attacks Romney, Giuliani.

Governor Romney, would you like to respond?

"I’m not sure," Romney says, getting laughter.  "This audience and all of the nation has heard time and time again," about his change of heart on abortion issue.  "I’m pro-life.  I’m not going to apologize for becoming pro-life."

Major Giuliani would you like to respond?

"I’ve explained my position," Giuliani said, adding he won’t change his position and isn’t worried about not getting Keyes’ vote.

More videos from the Register are played.

Give me two examples where your faith would define change in policy in health care & education, Washburn sends to Huckabee.  He talks about "sense of balance" in addressing issues and "doing for the least" in both areas. 

She asks for specifics.

Now, question to Romney:  do you think it’s more important for next president to be fiscal conservative or a social conservative?

"I think it’s important for next president to be a conservative," Romney replies, referencing Reagan and three veins of conservatism — fiscal, social, and military.

Hunter gets same question, adds conservatives mean not sending technology to our adversaries.  Romney’s corporation joined with Chinese corp to buy an American defense contractor.  "I think that is a mistake," Hunter says, in most direct hit at Romney.

Three more candidate videos from Register.

Tancredo gets question about foreign policy; Washburn mentions his campaign website has just five sentences on foreign policy section.  "The major battle is this clash of civilizations," he replies.

Washburn asks Paul about his "revolution" and how he’d get his agenda thru congress.  "The secret is the term revolution wasn’t my word.  It was coined by supporters, but in a way it is revolutionary to go back to the constitution," he replied.

Washburn asks McCain about rep as maverick and asked for him to offer one time, in hindsight, when he wished he’d compromised.  "I cannot think of a time and I hope that I could never think of a time," McCain replied.

Washburn now asking for new year’s resolutions — for opponents.  15 seconds each.

Keyes offers one for American people instead.  "Let’s not accuse each other of a lack of patriotism or a lack of character," McCain offers. 

Huckabee:  "I’m going to be a lot more careful about everything I say,"

"Well, I would make it of them, too," he adds.

"We’ll come together, come together real soon and we will fight" to elect,

Thompson:  "Be a better man…try to be a better husband & father,"

Tancredo:  "I have to say because you are leading the pack now," he says to Huckabee.  "The question is how are you going to convince America how you’ve changed your mind on immigration."

Paul: "Reread constitution."

Hunter:  be nice to returning vets and young people who need jobs.  Buy American goods.

Giuliani:  resolve to take a better look at America."

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About O.Kay Henderson

O. Kay Henderson is the news director of Radio Iowa.