She may not have been on the stage, but Sen. Hillary Clinton was clearly on the minds of the GOP presidential candidates at a lively debate last night in Orlando. The Orlando Sentinel reports that the GOP hopefuls “battled in a nationally televised debate Sunday night over who is the most conservative and capable of beating likely Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton.” Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and John McCain “took the toughest shots — at Clinton and each other — as they sought to surge ahead in a crowded Republican field.” Giuliani “was singled out by Thompson for his support for gun control and federal funding of abortions, saying Giuliani ‘sides with Hillary Clinton on each of those issues.'” Giuliani “fired right back,” saying, “I mean Fred was the single biggest obstacle to tort reform in the United States Senate. He stood with Democrats over and over again.”

The New York Times reports that the debate “stood out for the intensity and personal nature of the exchanges, as Republicans tried to distinguish themselves two and a half months before the first votes are cast – a tactic that risks exposing some of the flaws that Republican voters say they see in the leading candidates.” But “even as they scrimmaged, the leading candidates took even stronger aim at just one Democratic candidate,” Clinton, “with a series of attacks that may not only have earned them points with Republican voters but could have the effect of helping her earn points with Democrats.”

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports that Clinton “became the common cause that united squabbling Republicans. ‘She hasn’t run a corner store. She hasn’t run a state. She hasn’t run a city. She has never run anything,’ Mitt Romney asserted in a typical comment. ‘And the idea that she could learn to be president, you know, as an internship just doesn’t make any sense.'” The Palm Beach Post reports, “The candidates got the strongest reaction from the partisan audience of about 3,500 whenever they mentioned Clinton,” who “was accused of being a high-taxer and a big spender who would be a weak commander in chief. Even Clinton’s sincerity as a New York Yankees fan was called into question. ‘I became a Yankee fan growing up in New York,’ Giuliani said. ‘She became a Yankee fan growing up in Chicago. Do you believe that?'”

The Washington Post reports in a front page story that the Republicans clashed “sharply over abortion, immigration and their readiness to challenge” Clinton “in a general election.” Giuliani and Romney “were quickly put on the defensive, fending off criticism leveled by” Thompson, “who questioned their conservative credentials.” Within minutes, McCain “joined the fray, aiming his fire primarily at Romney as someone he said had repeatedly changed his own positions and was attempting to distort the records of his rivals.”

USA Today reports Giuliani, Romney, and Huckabee “stressed their executive experience, while” McCain and Thompson “focused on curbing federal spending — and most took shots at the presumed Democratic frontrunner.” The debate “capped a weekend meeting of the Republican Party of Florida designed to promote the Jan. 29 primary, which is timed so that the state could have an impact on deciding the party’s standard bearer.” The Washington Times, in a report headlined, “GOP Debate Signals Race To The Right,” that after Thompson “took a swipe at Mr. Giuliani, saying the former New York City mayor supported federal funding for abortion, gun control and creating havens for illegal aliens,” the “attempt by the three other candidates to adhere to Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment — ‘Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican’ — was quickly jettisoned.”