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GOP Presidential Candidates Hold First Debate

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

There is plenty of dialogue about Iraq in the American presidential campaign. Last week, the Democrats who would be president faced off in a televised forum. And last night it was the Republican candidates' turn, all 10 of them: Frontrunners Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, Senator John McCain, and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney were joined by seven other candidates.

They were all speaking at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, and the location tells you something about the president that they say they want to emulate.

NPR's Ina Jaffe was there and filed this report.

INA JAFFE: The lead topic was the same one that's uppermost in the minds of most voters now - the war in Iraq. Senator John McCain said the Bush administration horribly mismanaged the war but that the surge in American troops there must be given a chance to work. Looking quite angry, he condemned Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid for saying the war was lost.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): And if we lost, then who won? Did al-Qaida win? When on the floor of the House of Representatives they cheer, they cheer when they pass a withdrawal motion that has a certain date for surrender, what were they cheering? Surrender? Defeat? We must win in Iraq.

JAFFE: If Iraq was discussed as the number one challenge facing the country, Iran was a close second. Like many of the candidates, Rudy Giuliani advocated a confrontational approach in dealing with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the possibility of Iran developing nuclear arms.

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Mayor, New York City): Ahmadinejad is clearly irrational. He has to understand it's not an option. He cannot have nuclear weapons.

JAFFE: The moderator, Chris Matthews of MSNBC, then left foreign affairs for a long list of domestic issues: abortion, climate change, health care, gay rights, the role of religion and more. At times the tempo was more like a game show than a debate.

Mr. CHRIS MATTHEWS (Host, "Hardball"): Starting with you, Governor. Would the day that Roe v. Wade is repealed be a good day for America?

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Governor, Massachusetts): Absolutely.

Mr. MATTHEWS: Senator?

Unidentified Man #1: A glorious day of human liberty and freedom.

Mr. MATTHEWS: Governor?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, it was wrongly decided.

Mr. MATTHEWS: Governor?

Unidentified Man #3: Most certainly.

JAFFE: Romney was asked for more detailed explanations of his views on abortion since he seems to have changed his position since he left the Massachusetts State House for the White House campaign trail.

Mr. ROMNEY: Well, I've always been personally pro-life, but for me it was a great question about whether or not government should intrude in that decision. That said, I protect the law as it was, which is effectively a pro-choice position. About two years ago when we were studying cloning in our state, I said, look, we have gone too far; it's a brave new world mentality that Roe v. Wade has given us and I change my mind.

JAFFE: If the so-called second and third-tier candidates were hoping for a breakthrough last night, they'd have to be mostly disappointed. Former Governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin and Jim Gilmore of Virginia, Congressman Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul, and Senator Brownback did get equal time with the frontrunners, but they had a hard time distinguishing themselves in this rapid-fire format. The ones who did stand out were the ones with a narrower focus. Congressman Duncan Hunter on immigration, for example.

Representative DUNCAN HUNTER (Republican, California): In my town of San Diego we built the border fence. When we built that fence we had a border out of control. We brought down the smuggling of people and narcotics by more than 90 percent.

JAFFE: Then there was Congressman Ron Paul, who ran for president once before on the libertarian ticket and was one of the few Republicans in Congress to vote against the war.

Representative RON PAUL (Republican, Texas): I tried very hard to solve this problem before we went to war by saying, declare war if you want to go to war; go to war, fight it and win it, but don't get into it for political reasons or to enforce U.N. resolutions or pretend the Iraqis were a national threat to us.

JAFFE: All the candidates were asked what they'd do differently than the current president. Mr. Bush was criticized - usually politely - on his handling of the war, homeland security, the economy, and the concentration of power in the federal government. Only Rudy Giuliani defended him without qualification.

Mr. GIULIANI: I think we should remind ourselves - because I remember every day that on September 11, 2001, we thought we were going to be attacked many, many times between then and now. We haven't been. I believe we had a president who made the right decision at the right time on September 20, 2001, to put us on offense against terrorists, and I think we as Republicans should remind people of that.

JAFFE: This was just the first of two GOP candidate forums that will be held here at the Reagan Library. The second will be just one week before California's February 5th primary. Next time, though, only the frontrunners will be invited, whoever they turn out to be.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Simi Valley, California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."