DEARBORN, Michigan (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson made a crisp debut in his first 2008 debate appearance on Tuesday, and rivals Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney battled over their records on taxes and spending.
Thompson, who did not participate in two debates held since he entered the race last month, said the U.S. economy was not headed for a recession and warned against strict trade restrictions on China during the session with his eight Republican rivals.
“I’ve enjoyed watching these fellows,” Thompson said after avoiding verbal missteps that have plagued his month-old candidacy. “I’ve got to admit it was getting a little boring without me.”
But he was a bystander in an early confrontation between Giuliani, former mayor of New York, and Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who continued a week-long campaign-trail battle over their tax and spending policies while in office.
Giuliani, who leads Republicans in national opinion polls in the November 2008 presidential race, said he brought taxes down 17 percent in New York while Romney let them increase by 11 percent in Massachusetts.
“The point is, you’ve got to control taxes. But I did it. He didn‘t,” Giuliani said.
Romney shot back: “It’s baloney. Mayor, you’ve got to check your facts. I did not increase taxes in Massachusetts. I lowered taxes.”
Thompson and other Republicans criticized the explosion of federal spending in recent years and said rising budgets and deficits under President George W. Bush had to be tamed. Arizona Sen. John McCain pointed to his own Republican Party as the culprit.
“We have to get spending under control,” he said. “We Republicans who came to power in 1994 to change government -- government changed us.”
Several candidates said mandated government spending on Social Security and Medicare, the programs that fund retirement and medical care for seniors, were to blame.
“We’re spending the money of future generations, and those yet to be born,” Thompson said.
Thompson, 65, the former Hollywood actor and Tennessee senator, has shot into second place among Republicans in polls since entering the race. While he has been criticized for being vague on facts and unfamiliar with issues on the campaign trail, he appeared at ease and authoritative in the debate.
Romney likened Thompson’s late entry in the race to his old television show “Law and Order.”
“It has a huge cast. The series seems to go on forever. And Fred Thompson shows up at the end,” Romney said.
The debate cast the spotlight on the ailing U.S. auto sector in Michigan. The state’s unemployment rate of 7.4 percent in August, is far above the national average of 4.6 percent.
The three Detroit-based U.S. automakers lost $15 billion last year and have cut over 80,000 factory jobs in the run-up to a round of crucial contract talks with the industry’s major union, the United Auto Workers.
Romney, a native of Michigan, said the United States was facing a “one-state recession.”
“Industry is shrinking here, jobs are going away. This is just unacceptable. And, therefore, everyone’s going to have to come together to solve the problem,” he said.
Thompson said it was important to keep U.S. troops in Iraq “to stabilize that place and not have to leave with our tail between our legs.”
He fired back at rival Duncan Hunter, a California congressman who recommended levying punitive tax duties on China because “they are cheating on trade right now.”
Thompson said he favored restrictions on China’s imports of potentially dangerous materials but “turning our back on free trade, that’s not the direction to go in.”
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, an anti-war libertarian who stunned his rivals by raising $5 million for the campaign in the last three months, said he was not prepared to pledge his support for the nominee of the party.
“Not unless they’re willing to end the war,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland and John Whitesides)
To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/