At GOP Debate, Clinton Emerges as Focus

As Thompson debuts, Romney and Giuliani go after each other...and Hillary

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Presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, John McCain and Duncan Hunter talk after the debate in Dearborn, Michigan.

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First things first: Fred Thompson's much anticipated debut at last night's GOP presidential debate in suburban Detroit exceeded admittedly modest expectations. He was competent and composed and projected his usual laid-back self, which has worked against him on the stump but was not a handicap on television, his natural medium.

The night, however, was dominated by the intensifying battle, between front-runners Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani, over who reigns supreme when it comes to cutting taxes and spending and whether the president should have the power to veto specific items in bills that Congress sends to the Oval Office for approval. (Romney says yes, Giuliani an emphatic no.)

And though the six other candidates on the crowded stage had their moments—Sen. John McCain (he's with Romney on the line-item veto issue) on free trade and healthcare reform and Mike Huckabee on the financial struggles of the country's nonrich, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton was, as has become usual in these things, even more of a presence even though she wasn't there.

Romney, Giuliani...and Hillary

The sharpest exchanges between Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, came early in a tit-for-tat over their financial bona fides. Sample: Giuliani: I cut taxes 23 times while mayor. Romney: As governor, I controlled spending better than you. (Thompson, standing between the two, was relegated to spectator—listening as Romney called Giuliani's assertions "baloney" while Giuliani countered that Romney "can't fool all the people all the time.")

It was Romney, however, who put the spat in perspective: "We both worked real hard" to get taxes and spending down, he said. The difference is their positions on the line-item veto, which Romney said he used 844 times as governor to cut spending.

One problem, Giuliani countered: "The [presidential] line-item veto is unconstitutional. What the heck can you do about that if you're a strict constitutionalist?" Giuliani should know: As mayor, he challenged President Bill Clinton's effort to get line-item veto authority. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that presidential line-item vetoes are unconstitutional, prompting the former mayor to joke last night that he's a Republican candidate who actually beat the president. Romney argued that a constitutional line-item veto provision could be fashioned to give the president the same authority now available to governors.

When they weren't picking apart each other's records on taxes and spending, the front-runners were attacking Clinton's proposed healthcare plan and its associated costs—both repeatedly called it "Hillary Care."

And it was Giuliani who played the Hillary card most frequently, not only on healthcare, but also on Iraq, economic growth, presidential wartime authority, and her proposal for government-funded children's savings accounts. The former New York mayor has clearly calculated that he gets the most mileage out of attacks on Clinton. He even saved up a rehearsed slam on Clinton's healthcare plan for his final comment—in answer to a question about how a third-party candidate could affect the presidential race.

China bad, labor unions...good?

Free trade was also front and center, and that meant that China took some hits, most notably from Duncan Hunter. Example: What's missing from the U.S. economy?

"One-point-eight million jobs that have moved to Communist China," he said. "They are cheating on trade right now." And he pointed to Thompson and "the rest of you" who voted to give China favored nation trading status.

But Thompson—and others—weren't biting. "Every country that has turned its back on free trade has suffered," Thompson said. Giuliani acknowledged that free trade agreements need to be improved, but "we can't throw out the baby with the bathwater. We cannot stop doing business with the rest of the world."

Later, when asked to put themselves in the shoes of union members and make an argument for why unions are good for America, the field—aware they were standing in the heart of autoworker union country and not ceding the labor vote—gave somewhat surprisingly moderate answers. Standard answer: some unions are good, some are bad. And two mentioned loved ones who had been in unions—Giuliani's grandmother, a garment worker, and Sam Brownback's mother, a rural mail carrier.