by Richard C. Auxier and Alec Tyson
Less than a week before the Iowa straw poll, the nine Republican presidential candidates squared off Sunday morning in Des Moines, Iowa. The debate, broadcast on ABC’s “This Week,” focused on several core Republican issues including the war in Iraq, abortion and taxes. Candidate views generally mirrored those of the Republican rank-and-file, but were often at odds with the opinions of the general public. What follows is an analysis of the major topics of the debate as compared with public opinion data.
All but one of the Republican candidates continued to voice support for the war in Iraq, a position endorsed by a substantial majority of all Republicans but rejected by strong majorities of Democrats and independents, according to the latest nationwide Pew Research Center for the People & the Press survey. “I’m going to be judged by history, not by public opinion polls,” said Sen. John McCain. Overall, less than half of the public (41%) continues to say that going to war in Iraq was the right decision while 53% disagree. However, the candidates’ stand in defense of the war remains popular within GOP rank-and-file, with 74% of Republicans believing the war was the right decision. Only 21% of Democrats and 34% of independents agree.
McCain also positively assessed the state of the war. “They are making progress, and we are winning on the ground,” McCain said. Again, Republicans generally agree with the Senator: 61% saying the U.S. military effort in Iraq is going very or fairly well, compared with 23% of Democrats and 32% of independents, according to the July poll.
Another partisan public opinion gap emerges over the overall effect of the Iraq war on the war on terrorism. In the latest Pew poll, 72% of Republicans said the war in Iraq helps the war on terrorism. “The reality is that if we can bring stability to Iraq, and we can give them a chance to develop stability, that’s what we should be trying to accomplish,” said former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. “This is part of an overall terrorist war against the United States . . . America should win that battle.” A majority of Democrats (65%) and a plurality of independents (49%) believe the Iraq war has hurt the war on terrorism. Overall, 45% of the public say the Iraq war has harmed the war on terror.
The Republican presidential hopefuls directed their strongest attacks on their Democratic counterparts rather than to their GOP rivals on the stage. “I watched the Democrat debate,” said California Rep. Duncan Hunter. “And it was a race to see who could stampede for the exit the quickest.” McCain later added, “And we will not set a date for surrender, as the Democrats want us to do.” Republicans strongly support keeping troops in Iraq, with 74% saying they should stay until the situation is stable. The only dissent came from Rep. Ron Paul, whose solution to ending the war was “just come home.” While Paul’s comment did draw some applause from the partisan crowd, only 18% of his fellow Republicans support bringing the troops home as soon as possible. Overall, 54% of the public believes troops should be brought home soon, according to the latest Pew survey.
The candidates, however, did try to separate themselves from President George Bush when they were asked about the administration’s foreign policy. “I don’t know what President –all the things President Bush has done, but I can tell you, I’m not a carbon copy of President Bush,” said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. By 53% to 36% Republicans say they would prefer a candidate who took a different approach from the president’s in Iraq. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee tried to reach those looking for a change by arguing that there was “middle ground” in the Iraq debate.
Abortion took center stage in the Sunday morning debate with Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback calling it “a core issue for our party.” Fully 72% of Republicans say that abortion will be very (46%) or somewhat (26%) important in making their decision about who to vote for. In response to Giuliani’s position on abortion, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson stated “I think any candidate that’s pro-choice is going to have a difficulty with the party faithful.” Relatively few Republicans are aware of Giuliani’s pro-choice position on abortion. In a July survey, only 38% of Republicans and 35% of the general public could identify Giuliani as the leading Republican presidential candidate who favors a woman’s right to choose. Perhaps surprisingly, conservative Republicans who know Giuliani’s position are about as likely to support him as those who are unaware of his position.
There is little uncertainty about how rank-and-file Republicans feel about abortion. Only 16% of Republicans say abortion should be generally available, compared with 32% of the public and 44% of Democrats. A plurality of Republicans (43%) believes abortion should be against the law except in cases of rape, incest or to save the mother’s life and 17% say abortion should not be permitted at all. A 54% majority of Republicans strongly favors (29%) or favors (25%) making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion. By contrast, majorities of the public (56%) and of Democrats (67%) oppose making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion.
From the fair tax to a flat tax, from a national income tax to the alternate minimum tax, Republicans addressed a range of ways to reform federal tax policy. However, the party rank-and-file are ambivalent toward a major overhaul of the tax system. A February 2006 Pew survey found that a 47% plurality of Republicans believe the current tax system works pretty well and requires only minor changes. Some 33% said the tax system needed major changes and 18% thought the system should be completely rebuilt. More recently, a January 2007 survey found that a 58% majority of Republicans disagreed with the statement that “the tax system is unfair to people like me.” By contrast, 48% of the public and 53% of Democrats agreed with the statement.
Republicans do express clear and firm support for President Bush’s tax cuts. In a November 2006 survey based on registered voters, a 56% majority of Republicans said all the tax cuts made under President Bush over the past few years should be made permanent – only 12% of Democrats and 30% of the public agreed.
While Huckabee and Thompson stressed the importance of the health care issue and focused on sickness prevention plans, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo took a different tack suggesting “it’s not the responsibility of the federal government to provide “womb-to-tomb health care.” Nearly nine-in-10 (89%) Republican registered voters say that health will be either very (54%) or somewhat (35%) important in making a decision about who to vote for. Republicans are somewhat more divided when it comes to whether the government should foot the bill for universal health insurance even if it means raising taxes: 50% favor such an approach, 47% are opposed. Gov. Romney and Mayor Giuliani stressed the importance of private, free-market approaches to health care, a position that likely finds favor among the 61% of Republicans who say that when something is run by the government it is usually inefficient and wasteful.