WASHINGTON -- The Republican Party's nine declared presidential candidates eyed each other warily as much as they sparred during a muted televised debate yesterday in Iowa that featured some careful distancing from President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and jabs at Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and other Democratic hopefuls.
The 90-minute session at Drake University in Des Moines, hosted by ABC's George Stephanopoulos, began with a withering exchange between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, then settled into a tame discussion that rarely drifted from party orthodoxy.
Brownback's use of automated phone calls targeting Romney's now-disavowed support of abortion rights set off the debate's hottest moment.
"It's truthful," said Brownback, who called his strong anti-abortion stance "a core issue for our party."
Romney said the calls were "desperate" and "negative." He added, with more than a touch of pique, "I get tired of people that are holier than thou because they've been pro-life longer than I have."
There were other barbed moments. Romney fired a well-rehearsed line about Obama's recent remarks that he would consider meeting with several notorious dictators and that he might take action against al-Qaida terrorists in Pakistan without its approval.
"In one week he went from saying he's going to sit down, you know, for tea with our enemies, but then he's going to bomb our allies," Romney mocked. "I mean, he's gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week."
Obama's campaign was quick to return fire to Romney's riff, a reference to Fonda's controversial trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam war and the bomb-crazed title character from Stanley Kubrick's 1963 antiwar film.
"The fact that the same Republican candidates who want to keep 160,000 American troops in the middle of a civil war couldn't agree that we should take out Osama bin Laden if we had him in our sights proves why Americans want to turn the page on the last seven years of Bush-Cheney foreign policy," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said.
As the debate progressed, the GOP contestants appeared to shy away from taking each other on, concentrating on striking a chord with their audience of Iowans - and dispirited Republicans across the nation - by hewing closely to the party's conservative stances on abortion and health care and tough talk on the war on terrorism.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday suggested how unsettled Iowa's Republicans are: Romney has emerged as the early front-runner in the state, polling 26 percent to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's 14 percent. Undeclared entrant Fred Thompson placed third with 13 percent, and 19 percent of likely caucus-goers said they were satisfied with the current field. The Iowa caucuses will be held Jan. 14.
The sense of unease and divisions among the state's Republicans over Bush's Iraq policy surfaced in bursts of applause that greeted both maverick Texas Rep. Ron Paul's call for U.S. troops in Iraq to "just come home" and California Rep. Duncan Hunter's castigation of Democrats for "their rush for the exit."
And as the GOP field sized up Bush's legacy, most tried to leave some wiggle room between them and the administration.
"I can tell you I'm not a carbon copy of George Bush," said Romney.
On Iraq, all the contenders, except Paul, stuck with Bush on his gamble that a U.S. military buildup in Baghdad and other regions could turn around the American effort there.
But Brownback disagreed with Bush's backing of Iraq's fledgling national government, instead calling for a "three-state solution" similar to the loose federation of Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni states proposed by a Democratic presidential contender, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware.
While Hunter and Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo stuck to their hawkish stances and Giuliani and Romney urged more faith in Bush's troop buildup strategy, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee warned against staying in Iraq indefinitely, and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson criticized the performance of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, a fervent backer of the Iraq war, kept up a subdued but passionate argument on behalf of Bush's policy.
Stephen Braun writes for the Los Angeles Times.