ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - The top Republican White House contenders battled on Sunday over who was the better conservative, with Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney defending their records and views on social issues from strong attacks.
In a debate in the election swing state of Florida, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson accused Giuliani of being out of step with the conservative values of the Republican Party and Arizona Sen. John McCain attacked Romney’s conservative credentials.
“Governor Romney, you’ve been spending the last year trying to fool people about your record. I don’t want you to start fooling them about mine,” McCain said. “I stand on my record of a conservative.”
Thompson, a latecomer to the race who is chasing Giuliani in national opinion polls, said the former New York mayor’s support for abortion rights and gun control put him in a league with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, a New York senator.
“I simply disagree with him on those issues, and he sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues I just mentioned,” he said.
Giuliani said he cut taxes, created budget surpluses and lowered the crime rate in a largely Democratic city. “I think that was a pretty darn good conservative record,” he said.
He turned the tables on Thompson by challenging his failure in the Senate to support capping damages in lawsuits.
“Fred was the single biggest obstacle to tort reform in the United States Senate. He stood with Democrats over and over again,” Giuliani said.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee likened the freewheeling exchange between the top contenders to “a demolition derby.”
Giuliani leads the Republican presidential field in national opinion polls ahead of the 2008 election, with Thompson running second.
But Romney leads polls in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, which kick off the state-by-state nominating race and often give a jolt of national momentum to the winners.
Romney defended his record as Massachusetts governor and his conversion in recent years to becoming an abortion rights opponent, and said he cut taxes and reduced budgets in a heavily Democratic state.
“I was fighting against the liberal lion in perhaps the toughest state in America,” he said.
Most of the Republicans took shots at Clinton, who leads the Democratic presidential field in national opinion polls and is a frequent and popular target of Republican critics.
Romney questioned the former first lady’s experience and said she was not qualified to be commander in chief of the U.S. military. “She hasn’t run a corner store. She hasn’t run a state. She hasn’t run a city,” he said.
“There’s nothing funny about Hillary Clinton being president,” said Huckabee, who finished a close second to Romney on Saturday in a straw poll of social and religious conservatives at a conference in Washington.
“If she’s president, taxes go up, health care becomes the domain of the government, spending goes out of control, our military loses its morale,” Huckabee said.
On foreign policy, McCain and Giuliani said they were concerned about the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the United States needed to renew efforts on missile defense and building relations with Eastern Europe.
“This is a dangerous person, and he has to understand that there’s a cost to some of his actions,” McCain said, adding that as president he would make sure missile defense systems were placed in eastern Europe despite Putin’s objections.
Giuliani said the answer was for the United States to build a “very, very strong military that no other country on earth would ever consider challenging.”
The debate in Florida, an even more influential state in the nominating race after moving up the date of its primary to late January 2008, concluded a weekend convention of about 3,000 Florida Republican Party activists.
To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/