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 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."'