Republican candidates face off - - Columbia, South Carolina

Republican candidates face off

COLUMBIA, SC (AP/WIS) - The second debate among Republican presidential hopefuls has been a chance for them to burnish their conservative credentials.

The leading contenders also sought to highlight differences with their opponents on abortion, gun control and tax cuts.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani repeated his stance that abortion should be legal. But he said there should be an effort to "reduce abortions."

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said he had signed legislation into law banning assault weapons but added that he is a supporter of the rights of gun owners under the Constitution's Second Amendment.

And Arizona Senator John McCain of Arizona said he would make sure that President Bush's tax cuts are made permanent, even though he voted against them when they were passed in 2001.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said he wanted to hang an "Out of Business" sign on the Internal Revenue Service. Huckabee also got in a jab, saying Congress has spent money "like John Edwards at a beauty shop."

It was a reference to Edwards' $400 haircuts.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said he would not raise taxes.

Before the debate, Republican presidential candidates responded to the death of Jerry Falwell. The religious broadcaster was a force in conservative politics.

John McCain praised Falwell in a statement as "a man of distinguished accomplishment who devoted his life to serving his faith and country."

McCain was the commencement speaker last year at Falwell's Liberty University, after making peace with Falwell. Six years earlier, in a campaign speech, he had included Falwell in a group
he described as "agents of intolerance."

Mitt Romney is describing Falwell as "an American who built and led a movement based on strong principles and strong faith."

And, after a tour of the debate site Tuesday in South Carolina, Rudy Giuliani told reporters that Falwell "was a man who set a direction" - and someone who was "not afraid to speak his

Republican John Cox was excluded from the field and failed in a legal challenge to get included in the group.

Those who took part are Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, California Representative Duncan Hunter, Arizona Senator John McCain, Texas Representative Ron Paul, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo and former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson.

The candidates were questioned by three Fox News employees. More than 500 media credentials were issued to journalists from at least 15 different countries for the debate.

WIS not only heard what the candidates had to say at the debate, we're also looking to the voters to hear their perspective on the issues. We've partnered with Communities for Quality Education, an education advocacy group, for an exclusive poll of 500 likely Republican primary voters in South Carolina.

Respondents were asked, do you think that things in the nation are going in the right direction or on the wrong track?

Thirty-four percent said they thought the nation was on the wrong track, while 54 percent said we are headed in the right direction.

Next, which of these issues will be the most important to you in deciding which candidate to support? Not surprisingly, the war in Iraq was the number one issue for 32 percent of those polled.

Illegal immigration was next, and five issues were bunched together, including the economy and education.

The war in Iraq was also tops for Democratic voters, but education ranked much higher among their concerns.

Then voters were asked, leaving aside the war in Iraq, which will be most important to you in deciding which candidate to support. Here, immigration finished well ahead, followed by energy and dependence on foreign oil.

Finally, on the issue of what actions the federal government could take that would most improve our children's future, 59 percent said, improving the quality of education. Thirty-five percent said reducing crime.

Since education is one issue that both Republicans and Democrats think is important, for a series of proposals, the respondents were asked, "Tell me if you think it would improve the quality of public schools a great deal, somewhat, or not too much."

Topping the list, and well out in front among the likely Republican voters, improving discipline. Eighty-nine percent said it would help a great deal.

Next, 68 percent said this would help a great deal: placing students who cannot speak English in intensive English language classes until they are ready to learn with other students.

Two issues that have gotten a lot of attention in South Carolina were well down on the list. Only 43 percent said giving vouchers to students in failing public schools so they can attend private schools would help a great deal. And only 37 percent said providing more funding to public schools would improve schools a great deal.

Concerning school accountability, 59 percent of respondents said that testing students should be only one factor. Such things as graduation and attendance rates and classroom performance should also be included.

And the federal No Child Left Behind act is up for review by Congress. Thirty-eight percent said that law needs major changes, 36 percent said minor changes and 13 percent said it's okay as it is.

We also investigated what likely Republican primary voters in the state think about the candidates currently. If the presidential primary were held now, they were asked who would they vote for.

John McCain led the field, with 25 percent, followed closely by Rudy Giuliani at 20 percent. Then, a surprise, Fred Thompson, who is not even in the race, finished with 16 percent. And another surprise, Newt Gingrich, also not in yet, was fourth with 12 percent. And Mitt Romney came in with eight percent. No other candidate finished with more than two percent.

In a head-to-head matchup, McCain led Giuliani by a point, well within the margin of error. McCain had a larger lead over Fred Thompson, 52 percent to 38 percent.

When it came to how voters looked at the candidates, Giuliani had the highest favorable rating, with 74 percent, followed by McCain at 66 percent and Gingrich at 63 percent.

McCain, Giuliani and Gingrich also had extremely high name recognition. All the respondents had heard of McCain, only two percent had not heard of Giuliani and three percent had not heard of Gingrich. On the other hand, 30 percent of voters had never heard of Fred Thompson, which suggests he might have the most room to grow.

The firm Ayres McHenry and Associates conducted the poll from May fifth through the eighth. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.38 percent.

Reported by David Stanton

Posted by Chantelle Janelle

Copyright 2007 Raycom Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. AP contributed to this report.

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