Standing in a building named for Ford, the great symbol of the state and country’s economic past, the Republican candidates for president yesterday debated the nation’s economic future.

Brian Merlos
University of Michigan at Dearborn students gathered in the University Center there to watch the GOP debate held yesterday in Dearborn. (ROB MIGRIN/Daily)

The debate – which was at the city of Dearborn’s Ford Community and Performing Center, about three miles from the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus -centered on fiscal issues like trade, taxes, social security and health care.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Bloomfield Hills native, addressed Michigan’s struggling economy.

“It’s inexcusable that Michigan is undergoing a one-state recession,” he said.

He slammed the income tax hike passed by the Michigan legislature last week, singling out one of its most visible proponents, Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

“I was afraid she was going to put a tax on the debate before it was done,” he said.

Throughout the debate, the candidates sought to show how devoted they are to lowering taxes nationwide.

“We’re taxed to the max,” said Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback.

They also took on federal entitlement programs.

Tom Tancredo, a congressman from Colorado, said the only way to reduce federal spending is to restructure social security and health care programs. He said individuals should be able to save for their own retirement.

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, speaking in his first GOP debate since he officially joined the race last month, said it’s important to adjust retirement benefits to account for inflation.

The candidates spent a significant amount of time bashing New York Sen. Hillary Clinton’s health care plan. Clinton is leading the Democratic primary field in most polls.

Romney said market forces, not government programs, would help provide health care for more Americans.

Nabila Khan, a Dearborn senior, watched the debate from the Dearborn campus’s University Center. She said she was glad the candidates came to Michigan to talk about fixing the state’s economy.

“Debates often gloss over that,” she said.

Khan was one of about 250 students who gathered in the center to watch the debate at a student watch party.

Dearborn Political Science Asst. Prof. Trevor Thrall said he was surprised by the student turnout at the watch party. The crowd was made up mostly of students, many wearing T-shirts and carrying signs supporting Republican candidate Ron Paul, a Texas congressman.

The candidates were split on trade agreements, something often cited as a source of the American auto industry’s woes.

Republican candidates Mitt Romney and John McCain said increased international competition should not be viewed as a threat but as an opportunity for growth.

Candidates were quick to establish their support for alternative energy sources.

Romney said the fear of global warming is an opportunity to lead the world in technology. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee likened the race for alternative fuel to the race to the moon in the Cold War.

The candidates took turns criticizing the war in Iraq, but they were hesitant to say the military action was unnecessary.

California Congressman Duncan Hunter said he supports pre-emptive military action, like that taken against Iraq. Paul rushed to disagree. He said the military shouldn’t attack without an imminent threat.

Paul didn’t get as many chances to speak as some of the more mainstream candidates, but every time he did, the crowd in the University Center applauded. At the end of the debate, a faculty panel conducted a straw poll of the audience. Paul got 49 percent. Romney came in a distant second with 13 percent.

– Elizabeth Lai contributed to this report.

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