BOCA RATON, Fla. Republican presidential contenders depicted Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as weak on Iraq and certain to raise taxes Thursday night, setting aside their own campaign debate squabbles long enough to agree that she is unworthy of the White House.
"She is so out of step with the American people," said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, joined by Sen. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani in criticizing the former first lady.
The chorus of criticism came as Republicans strived to present their credentials as advocates of tax cuts, particularly to head off the threat of recession. They generally agreed that the newly minted, bipartisan economic stimulus package was a good start but did not go far enough.
"I will vote for it," said McCain, the only contender on stage with a Senate seat. He quickly added he wants the tax cuts President Bush won from Congress in 2001 and 2003 to be made permanent.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Rep. Ron Paul shared the debate stage, five days before the Florida primary that is the latest pivot point in the battle for the Republican presidential nomination.
The 90-minute debate featured a series of remarkably blunt questions to the five candidates on stage.
Giuliani was asked why his poll numbers are deteriorating in Florida, a state where he has devoted two weeks to campaigning. With a smile, he said he was like the New York Giants, the professional football team that made its way through a turbulent season and will play in the Super Bowl.
McCain was asked about his own mother's statement that he lacked support from certain elements of the Republican Party. He claimed he had won the Republican vote in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, then pivoted to add that he won the support of independents as well.
"They know I'll put my country ahead of my party every time," he added, attempting to portray himself as more electable than his rivals in the general election.
It wasn't the only moment where the focus turned away from the battle for the Republican presidential nomination, and toward the general election campaign with the Democrats.
Romney had a quick reply when asked how he would run against the team of Clinton and her husband, the former president.
"I frankly can't wait because the idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House with nothing to do is something I can't imagine," he said.
After saying Clinton wanted to retreat from Iraq, raise taxes and win government-run health care, Romney added, "She is exactly what's wrong in Washington. I said before, 'Washington is broken. She is Washington to the core."'
McCain said the war was worth the cost in American lives because "we got rid of Saddam Hussein. He said we will be able to eventually draw down in Iraq, but not now. He said the U.S. should not "wave the white flag" as Sen. Clinton would do.
Giuliani said of the former first lady, "she used to be in favor of the war. Now she's against it.
The barrage of criticism was the equivalent of the flip side of Monday's Democratic debate, when McCain's name came up several times as though he would be the Republican nominee, the man to be beaten in the fall.
The economy dominated most of the debate, not surprising given the threat of recession and polls that show it is a top concern of voters.
The men vying to succeed Bush were careful not to criticize the agreement he made with House Democratic leaders, but several made plain they wanted something that would cut taxes further.
"It's something I support and I look forward to taking it further," said Romney, who backs permanent tax cuts along with the rebates that are at the heart of the bipartisan agreement.
Giuliani responded along similar lines in the debate's opening moments. "I think this package for what it does is OK and I would support it, but I think it does not go far enough," he said. "We should be very aggressive."
Huckabee offered qualified support for the stimulus package, saying he was concerned the tax rebates would be financed by borrowing from foreign lenders such as China, and that consumers would then turn around and spend the money on Chinese products.
"I have to wonder whose economy is going to be stimulated the most by the package," said the former Arkansas governor.
The fifth candidate, Paul, said, "the government does have a responsibility, but it's supposed to lower taxes, get rid of regulations and devise a monetary policy that makes some sense."
In recent days, several GOP presidential hopefuls had outlined stimulus packages of their own, most of which relied to a far greater degree on permanent tax cuts than the agreement between Bush and Democratic leaders announced earlier Thursday in Washington.
About two-thirds of the tax relief in the bipartisan plan would be delivered in rebate checks to 117 million families beginning in May. Individual taxpayers would get up to $600 in rebates, working couples $1,200 and those with children an additional $300 per child under the agreement.
After a fierce month of primaries and caucuses, the roster of contenders has begun to thin, and Florida is likely to winnow the field further. Former Sen. Fred Thompson and Rep. Duncan Hunter both dropped out in the past week. Huckabee is out of money and campaigning only sporadically in Florida, while Giuliani has made the state virtual must-win territory.
Perhaps as a result, the five contenders shied away from attacking one another, and at times, seemed eager to curry favor with one another's supporters.
McCain made the most obvious play along those lines, leaping to Giuliani's defense after the former mayor was asked about a critical editorial appearing in Friday editions of The New York Times.
"I happen to know he's an American hero," McCain said of Giuliani, referring to his leadership in New York City after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The primary offers the winner 57 Republican National Convention delegates. It is the first big state to vote in the nominating campaign, the first winner-take-all contest in terms of delegates and the final election before a virtual national primary on Feb. 5.
NBC's Brian Williams, moderator of the 90-minute event, pointed out that in recent years, no Republican has won the party's presidential nomination without first winning the Florida primary.