What the GOP Was Arguing About as Their Last Primary Began


In early May 2007, 10 candidates gathered for the first Republican debate. The questions they faced afford an interesting look back.

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When the Republican Party's primary season kicks off tonight with its first official debate, five candidates will take the stage: Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, former CEO Herman Cain, former N.M. governor Gary Johnson, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. Most front-runners will be absent.

It's quite a contrast from four years ago. During Election 2008, the initial GOP debate was held around the same time -- May 3, 2007, to be exact. But back then, 10 candidates faced voters, including eventual winner John McCain, runners up Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, and Rudy Giuliani, widely thought to be a strong contender for the nomination. Also present were Sam Brownback, James S. Gilmore, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, and Tommy Thompson.

Those forgotten names got me wondering if I remembered the questions posed during that era. It turns out that If you're a political junkie, the whole transcript is an interesting read. Below I've condensed just the questions posed by the moderators. Perusing them now affords interesting perspective on how the country has changed, and the ways in which it remains the same. The War in Iraq and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons were both big issues. America's poor performance in global popularity surveys came up. Tax cuts were discussed more often than deficits, as was immigration. And the candidates were asked whether they'd retain Karl Rove, or pardon Scooter Libby.

Afghanistan wasn't mentioned. It will surely be raised in the back-and-forth tonight, as will the economy and torture. Plus Johnson is on the stage, so a moderator will feel compelled to make a stupid joke about marijuana rather than asking a serious question about the drug war. It will be interesting to note other ways tonight's questions compare to the ones below:

• Just 22 percent believe this country is on the right track. How do we get back to Ronald Reagan's morning in America?

• Do you need anything, beyond what the president has now, to win the war?

• 55 percent of Americans say victory is just not possible in Iraq. They've made up their minds on this war. Why shouldn't they have a president who will listen?

• Recent polls in the Islamic world reveal a sea of hostility toward the United States, feeding what General Petraeus calls the central front of Al Qaida in Iraq. How do we win this war if every dead terrorist is so easily replaced?

• Countries like Jordan, Morocco, Turkey, another Islamic country, 10, 12 percent of the people support us, the rest are angry at us. Doesn't that create a sea of recruitment opportunity for our enemy? Do we have to reduce that temperature of hatred before we win the war, or simply continue to fight the terrorists?

• I'd like your views on how you balance loyalty and accountability. Would you have fired Don Rumsfeld before last November?

• The Rumsfeld removal was perhaps timed to the election. Do you think a general shake-up in this administration's Cabinet would be good?

• You voted against the war. Why are all your fellow Republicans up here wrong?

• Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson said that Iran has already committed acts of war. Do you agree? And, secondly, as part of that, what's your tripwire for a U.S. strike in Iran? Is it the building of a nuclear weapon? The threat to use a weapon once built? A delivery system? Is it preemptive or preventive?

• Imagine you're president of the United States. You get a call from the prime minister of Israel saying Israel is about to strike Iran's nuclear sites and he wants U.S. help. What do you say?

• When speaking about Osama bin Laden last week, Governor Romney said, quote, "It's not worth moving heaven and Earth, spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person." Senator McCain called that naive. Who's right?

• Is President Bush partly responsible for the worldwide sea of hostility against the United States, in your view?

• Sara from Arlington, Virginia, wants to know if you would be comfortable with Tom Tancredo, a stanch opponent of illegal immigration, as head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

• One of our prized guests here today, Governor Schwarzenegger -- looking this man in the eye, answer this question -- Should we change our Constitution, which we believe is divinely inspired...(Laughter) ...to allow men like Mel Martinez, the chairman of your party, born in Cuba, great patriot, the senator from Florida, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, to stand here some night?

• Bradley Winters of New York would like to know if there's anything you learned or regret during your time as mayor in your dealings with the African-American community?

• Daniel Duchovnik from Walnut Creek, California, wants to know: What do you dislike most about America?

• Thousands of reputable scientists have concluded with almost certainly that human activity is responsible for the warming of the Earth. Do you believe global warming exists?

• David Diamond from Memphis writes in, "Do you have a plan to solve the shortage of organs donated for transplant?"

• Maggie from Highland Park, Illinois, wants to know if you consider yourself a compassionate conservative, like President Bush.

• Pete from Rochester Hills, Michigan wants to ask you this. If you were president, would you work to phase out the IRS?

• Would the day that Roe v. Wade is repealed be a good day for America?

• You have said in the past that you believe in the first eight to 12 weeks of pregnancy that the woman should have the right to have an abortion. Do you still want to stick with that exception?

• Do you have any nuance on this? Or are you just happy with the repeal of Roe v. Wade?

• In recent months, you've said you were, quote, "always for life," but we've also heard you say you were once, quote, "effectively pro-choice." Which is it? With respect, some people are going to see those changes of mind as awfully politically convenient.

• Could you support a nominee of your party who is not pro-life?

• You became very well known for standing up against the use of public funds for what many people considered indecent exhibits at the Brooklyn museum and places like that. Why do you support the use of public funds for abortion?

• Every cab driver in America knew what Ronald Reagan stood for: defeat communism abroad; reduce big government at home. Can you, Senator McCain, restore that kind of unity of purpose?

• How do you unify the country the way Reagan did, a good portion of the country?

• How do you reconcile this moral leadership kind of role of conservatism with the very libertarian strain of conservatism -- the Barry Goldwater conservatism that you represent?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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