GOP field plays nice in debate dominated by economy

The Republican presidential candidates on Thursday night avoided the prickly rhetoric and sharp elbows that have dominated the race for weeks as they debated in Florida just days ahead of the Sunshine State’s critical primary.

Even though the candidates were given the opportunity to ask each other questions during one segment of the 90-minute debate, none of the candidates were able to draw serious blood.

Perhaps the only other big change from earlier debates -- aside from the absences of Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) and former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) -- was that the Iraq war took a definite backseat to economic issues.

The NBC moderators led off by asking the candidates about the bipartisan economic stimulus plan coming worked out in Washington earlier in the day. Most of the field said they would support the package -- Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) said he intends to vote for it -- with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyAthlete Peter Frates dies of ALS after becoming face of Ice Bucket Challenge Ex-Rep. Scott Taylor to seek old Virginia seat The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - A crucial week on impeachment MORE, McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani saying they want the package to go further by making the proposed tax cuts permanent.

Only former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) had problems with the package, with Huckabee offering another prescription for fixing an economic downturn -- widen I-95 by two lanes from Bangor, Maine to Miami.

Polls continue to show a tight and fluid race in the last big primary before Super Tuesday. Most surveys show either Romney or McCain leading, but neither candidate made any real effort to bruise the other Thursday night.

Romney landed a soft jab by calling out McCain for having voted against the Bush tax cuts, saying he is glad the senator has come around but “he should’ve voted for them the first time around.”

Romney also sought to play up his relatively new campaign theme of change, saying repeatedly that “Washington is broken” and “we’re the party of change.”

As was the case in debates early last year, the Democratic candidates were the primary target for the GOP field as they again tried to one-up each other in who could be more critical.

Romney called the Democrats “audacious and arrogant” for suggesting that the Democrat-led Senate’s push for troop withdrawal had led to the surge in Iraq and its subsequent, perceived success.

The former Massachusetts governor was asked about the possibility that he might, as a potential nominee, find himself running against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and her husband, the former president.

“I frankly can’t wait,” Romney said. “The idea of Bill Clinton back in the White House with nothing to do is something I can’t imagine.

“I said before Washington is broken. [Hillary Clinton] is Washington to the core. She has been there too long. Bill Clinton has been there too long.”

Toward the end of the debate, Giuliani was asked about his free-falling poll numbers in a state on which he has focused almost all of his efforts since the beginning of the primary and caucus season.

The former mayor compared himself to the New York Giants, saying his campaign has lulled its rivals into a “false sense of security.”

“We’re going to come from behind and surprise them,” Giuliani said.

One of the big questions floating around the media is the question about how much of his own money Romney has put into his campaign. The former governor declined to answer the question directly. Instead, he stated that he would report how much he has injected when the year-end financial reports are filed on Jan. 31 -- two days after the Florida primary -- and “not a minute earlier.”