The last Republican and Democrat presidential candidates left standing met for the final debates of the primary season in CA. The GOP debate, held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley, was notable for the palpable loathing the two frontrunners have for each other. The Dem debate, held at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles in front of an audience that included Hollywood celebs like Pierce Brosnan, was notable for the pretense that the two rivals do not loathe each other.

Their surroundings notwithstanding, Sen. John McCain (AZ) and Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MA) repeatedly violated Reagan’s “11th Commandment” (Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.) in bitter exchanges like these:

† On who is the “true conservative” in the race:

Romney: I’m sure, on many issues, he does, and he’s a good Republican. I wouldn’t question those credentials at all, but there are a number of pieces of legislation where his views are out of the mainstream, at least in my view, of conservative Republican thought. … And I guess I’d also note that if you get endorsed by The New York Times, you’re probably not a conservative.

McCain: Let me note that I was endorsed by your two hometown newspapers, who know you best. Including the very conservative Boston Herald … I’ll guarantee you The Arizona Republic will endorsing me, my friend.

† On whether Romney supports a timetable for phased withdrawal from Iraq:

Romney: I have never ever supported a specific timetable for exit from Iraq, and it’s offensive to me that someone would suggest that I have. … And by the way, raising it a few days before the Florida primary, when there was very little time for me to correct the record … sort of falls in the kind of dirty tricks that I think Ronald Reagan would have found to be reprehensible.

McCain: [I]n December of 2006, after the election, Governor Romney was asked what he thought about the surge. He said at that time: I won’t weigh in; I’m a governor. … I was out there on the front lines … saying, we not only can’t withdraw, but we got to have … additional troops over there in order for us to have a chance to succeed. Then in April … 2007 … Harry Reid said the war is lost and we got to get out. And the buzzword was “timetables.” … Governor, the right answer to that question was “no,” not what you said … Timetables was the buzzword for withdrawal.

Romney: Is it not fair to have the person, who’s being accused of having a position he doesn’t have, be the expert on what his position is? How is it that you’re the expert on my position, when my position has been very clear?

McCain: I’m the expert on this – when you said, I won’t weigh in; I’m a governor.

Romney: That’s a separate point.

McCain: The fact is that I have fought for this surge. I have said, we need to have this succeed. I know the situation in Iraq and I am proud to have supported this president and supported the fact that we are succeeding in Iraq today. If we had done, if we had waited, laid in the weeds until we leave, then al Qaeda would have won, and we would be facing a disastrous situation.

Romney: [W]hat’s interesting here is, it’s an attempt to do the … Washington-style old politics, which is lay a charge out there, regardless of whether it’s true or not, don’t check it, don’t talk to the other candidate, just throw it out there, get it in the media, in the stream. There’s not a single media source that I’ve seen that hasn’t said it was reprehensible.

McCain: [A]s far as Washington-type politics is concerned, I think my friend Governor Huckabee, sir, will attest the millions of dollars of attack ads and negative attacks you leveled against him in Iowa, the millions of dollars of attack ads you attacked against me in New Hampshire and have ever since – a lot of it’s your own money you’re free to do with what you want to. You can spend it all. But the fact is that … your negative ads … have set the tone, unfortunately, in this campaign.

† On whether Romney is more qualified than McCain to manage the economy:

McCain: I know how to lead. I led the largest squadron in the United States Navy, and I did it out of patriotism, not for profit. And I can hire lots of managers, but leadership is the quality that people look for. … [T]he fact is that I have the qualifications and the knowledge and the background and the judgment. I don’t need any on-the-job training.

Romney: [A]s people over the centuries have considered who ought to lead our country, they … look to governors because they have the experience of being executive leaders. … Senators and congressmen are fine people, but they’re legislators. They sit in committees; they’re committee chairs, and they call that leadership. In my view, the key leadership of my life was 25 years in the private sector – helping build business, turn a business around, start a business successfully, then going off to the Olympics, helping turn the Olympics around. You don’t do that as a manager; you do that as a leader.

† On whether McCain is more qualified than Romney to run the military as commander in chief:

Romney: [T]here are those who’d say, you know, to be the commander in chief, you have to have served in the military. And one of the two great regrets I have in life is I didn’t serve in the military. I’d love to have but I don’t believe that you have to have served in the military to be a great commander in chief or to be a great foreign policy expert. … [M]y objective is to keep America the strongest nation on Earth, economically, militarily, and, if you will, from the spirit of our people. I believe I can do that by virtue of a lifetime of experience leading, making decisions.

McCain: I think he managed companies, and he bought, and he sold, and sometimes people lost their jobs. That’s the nature of that business. But the fact is … we’re at a time in our history … where you can’t afford any on-the- job training. And I believe that my experience and background qualifies me to lead. And that’s why I’ve gotten the support of four former secretaries of state, two of them in the Reagan administration. … That’s why I’ve gotten the support of over 100 retired Army generals and admirals. Literally every national security expert from the Reagan and other administrations are supporting my candidacy.

† On which candidate Ronald Reagan would endorse :

Romney: Ronald Reagan would look at the issues that are being debated right here and say … I’m not going to walk out of Iraq until we win in Iraq. … lower taxes … lower spending. Ronald Reagan … is pro-life. He would also say I want to have an amendment to protect marriage. Ronald Reagan would say, as I do, that Washington is broken. … Ronald Reagan would say, yes, let’s drill in ANWR. Ronald Reagan would say, no way are we going to have amnesty again. … Ronald Reagan would say no to a 50-cent-per-gallon charge on Americans for energy … [T]his party, it has a choice, what the heart and soul of this party is going to be, and it’s going to have to be in the house that Ronald Reagan built.

McCain: Ronald Reagan would not approve of someone who changes their positions depending on what the year is. … Ronald Reagan came with an unshakable set of principles … I think he knows that I stick with my principles. I put my political career on the line because I knew what would happen if we failed in Iraq. I hope that the experience I had serving as a foot soldier in his revolution would make him proud for me to continue that legacy of sticking to principle and doing what you believe in, no matter what. [Editorial Note: Nancy Reagan is said to enthusiastically support McCain, though she does not plan to make a public endorsement.]

One would have assumed that with just four candidates debating each other instead of 10, Mike Huckabee (AR) and Ron Paul (TX) would get more time to talk about their own positions. But CNN – one of the debate sponsors, along with the Los Angeles Times and Politico.com – kept the focus on McCain and Romney by not timing their responses.

Paul, who knows he is a long-long-long-shot, was content to restate his views on the illegitimacy of the Iraq war and the role that war-spending plays in domestic issues.

Huckabee – who can solidify McCain’s lead by taking a percentage of the conservative and values voter support from Romney on Super Duper Tuesday, thereby becoming a plausible running mate for the Arizonan – repeatedly complained about being passed over by the moderators: “I want to make sure everybody understands, this isn’t a two-man race … You want to talk conservative credentials? Let me get in on that” and “I didn’t come here to umpire a ballgame between these two. I came here to get a chance to swing at a few myself.”

When Hillary Clinton (NY) and Barack Obama (IL) faced off the following night, The Stiletto was hoping to see some of the same raucousness that marked the Republican debate – Hillary could go womano-a-mano with Obama as she no longer had to contend with him and John Edwards (NC) taking turns challenging her. But while there were flashpoints between the two, they managed to sublimate their antipathy towards one another by looking past the primaries to the general election.

Both candidates started off by paying homage to the departed Edwards, and after gratuitous nods to one another that one of them will be taking the Oath of Office in January 2009, they took issue with each other’s positions – but also attacked the Bush administration, and, significantly, McCain.

† On what is the most significant policy difference between the two:

Hillary: [W]hen it comes to how we approach foreign affairs in particular, I believe that we’ve got to be realistic and optimistic. … I think that we’ve got to have a full diplomatic effort, but I don’t think the president should put the prestige of the presidency on the line in the first year, to have meetings without preconditions with five of the worst dictators in the world.

Obama: I was opposed to Iraq from the start. … [T]he next president has to show … the kind of judgment that will ensure that we are using our military power wisely. It is true that I want to elevate diplomacy, so that it is part of our arsenal to serve the American people’s interests and to keep us safe. And I have disagreed with Senator Clinton on, for example, meeting with Iran. … [T]he National Intelligence Estimate … suggested that if we are meeting with them, talking to them, and offering them both carrots and sticks, they are more likely to change their behavior, and we can do so in a way that does not ultimately cost billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and hurt our reputation around the world.

† On how their expansive proposals for healthcare coverage will be paid for without raising taxes:

Obama: I respect that John McCain in the first two rounds of Bush tax cuts said it is irresponsible; that we have never before cut taxes at the same time as we are going into war. And somewhere along the line the Straight Talk Express lost some wheels and now he is in favor of extending Bush tax cuts that went to some of the wealthiest Americans, who don’t need them and were not even asking for them. … [A] sizable portion of my health care plan will be paid for because we emphasize savings. We invest in prevention. … [T]he question is not tax cuts, tax hikes. The question is, who are the tax cuts for? Who are the tax hikes imposed upon?

Hillary: [T]ake the Bush tax cuts that are set to expire on people making more than $250,000 a year – that would raise about $55 billion – and … put that into these subsidies for the health care tax credits so that people would be able to afford the health care that we are offering. The other $55 billion would come from the modernization and the efficiencies that I believe we can obtain. … The Bush administration has given enormous tax giveaways to HMOs and drug companies, under the Medicare prescription Part D program, under the HMO program in Medicare. I would rein those in.

† On Obama’s contention in a CNN interview that: “I stood up for a humane and intelligent immigration policy in a way that frankly none of my other opponents did”:

Obama: I worked with Ted Kennedy … Dick Durbin … John McCain – although he may not admit it now – to move this issue forward aggressively. And it’s a hard political issue, let’s be honest. … [W]e have to stand up for these issues when it’s tough. … I did it when I was in the state legislature, sponsoring the Illinois version of the DREAM Act, so that children who were brought here through no fault of their own are able to go to college, because we actually want well-educated kids in our country who are able to … succeed and become part of this economy and part of the American dream. … There are those who were opposed to this issue and there have been those who have flipped on the issue and have run away from the issue.

Hillary: I cosponsored comprehensive immigration reform in 2004, before Barack came to the Senate. So I have been on record on behalf of this for quite some time. … I was so honored to get the farm workers’ endorsement last week because for so many years I have stood with farm workers, who do some of the hardest work there is anywhere in our country. So we may be looking at the immigration reform issue as a political issue. And it certainly has been turned into one by those who I think are undermining the values of America. … I do not think that it is either appropriate to give a driver’s license to someone who’s here undocumented, putting them frankly at risk, because that is clear evidence that they are not here legally. And I believe it is a diversion from what should be the focus at creating a political coalition with the courage to stand up and change the immigration system.

Obama: Senator Clinton gave a number of different answers over the course of six weeks on [issuing drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants], and that did appear political. Now, you know, at this point she’s got a clear position, but it took a while. And … just in fairness, initially in a debate you said you were for it. Then you said you were against it. And the only reason I bring that up is to underscore the fact that this is a difficult political issue.

† On Iraq:

Clinton: I will begin to withdraw troops in 60 days. I believe that it will take me one to two brigades a month … nearly all of them should be out within a year. … We have to think about what we’re going to do with the more than 100,000 American civilians who are there, working for the embassy, working for businesses, working for charities. … [W]e’ve got to figure out what to do with the Iraqis who sided with us. … At the same time, we’ve got to tell the Iraqi government … [t]hey’re out of time. They’ve got to make the tough decisions they have avoided making. They’ve got to take responsibility for their own country.

Obama: [I]t is important for us to be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in. … We will not have a permanent occupation and we will not have permanent bases in Iraq. … But I do think it is important for us to set a date … because if we are going to send a signal to the Iraqis that we are serious, and prompt the Shi’a, the Sunni and the Kurds to actually come together and negotiate, they have to have clarity about how serious we are. … [It] is very important … we not get mission creep and … have troops in Iraq to blunt Iranian influence. … I will be the Democrat who will be most effective in going up against a John McCain – or any other Republican – because they all want basically a continuation of George Bush’s policies … because I will offer a clear contrast as somebody who never supported this war, thought it was a bad idea. I don’t want to just end the war, but I want to end the mind-set that got us into war in the first place.

Clinton: I certainly respect Senator Obama making his speech in 2002 against the war. And then, when he came to the Senate, we’ve had the same policy because we were both confronting the same reality of trying to deal with the consequences of George Bush’s action. … [I]t is abundantly clear that the case that was outlined on behalf of going to the resolution – not going to war – was a credible case. I was told personally by the White House that they would use the resolution to put the inspectors in. … Some people now think that this was a very clear, open-and-shut case. We bombed them for days in 1998 because Saddam Hussein threw out inspectors. We had evidence that they had a lot of bad stuff for a very long time, which we discovered after the first Gulf War. Knowing that he was a megalomaniac, knowing he would not want to compete for attention with Osama bin Laden, there were legitimate concerns about what he might do. So I think I made a reasoned judgment.

Obama: I think everybody … understood, this was a vote potentially to go to war. … Senator Clinton, I think, fairly has claimed that she’s got the experience on day one. And part of the argument that I’m making in this campaign is that it is important to be right on day one and that the judgment that I’ve presented, on this issue and some other issues, is relevant to how we’re going to make decisions in the future. … [T]he terrorist threat is real. And precisely because it’s real, and we’ve got finite resources, we don’t have the capacity to just send our troops in anywhere we decide without good intelligence, without a clear rationale.

And here’s where the rubber met the road: what are the chances of an Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama ticket? Both candidates ducked the question.

After noting that, “obviously there’s a big difference between those two,” Obama said: “it’s premature for either of us to start speculating about vice presidents … it would be premature and presumptuous.” Hillary agreed “with everything Barack just said,” and left it at that.

Now that it’s all been said and done, NBC’s Chuck Todd expresses the thoughts of his fellow pundits when he writes: “The most difficult thing for many of us watching these debates for a living is that we’re having a hard time finding new things to say just as the candidates are having a hard time saying anything new.”

Romney, for instance, sounds like a broken record: “Washington is broken” … “Washington is broken” … “Washington is broken.” To which The Stiletto responds: “You need a new soundbite” … “You need a new soundbite” … “You need a new soundbite.”

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog.

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