The presidential campaign turned South on Thursday, as Republicans vied over who could offer the toughest language on Iran and traded barbs...

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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — The presidential campaign turned South on Thursday, as Republicans vied over who could offer the toughest language on Iran and traded barbs over who’s the true conservative heir to the late President Reagan.

The candidates also took turns offering proposals to shore up an economy that’s showing signs of trouble. All insisted that a recession could be averted, but only with Republican policies on energy, spending and taxes.

The 90-minute debate, televised on Fox News Channel, marked the turn of the Republican campaign to two almost simultaneous contests — with voting Tuesday in Michigan and Jan. 19 in South Carolina. Since 1980, the South Carolina winner has gone on to claim the party’s presidential nomination.

Candidates looked for punchy one-liners, backed up by serious proposals on economic and foreign-policy issues.

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In one moment that could resonate with Christian conservatives who could dominate South Carolina voting, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee forcefully defended an earlier statement backing the biblical admonition that wives should submit to their husbands.

“I’m not the least bit ashamed of my faith or the doctrines of it,” Huckabee said. “I don’t try to impose that as a governor, and I wouldn’t impose it as a president. But I certainly am going to practice it unashamedly…. “

He went on to explain that the Bible also commands husbands to submit to their wives and that marriage requires each spouse to give 100 percent to the other.

The debate at times looked like two smaller debates — between Huckabee and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and between Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

One of the most animated exchanges came when the candidates were asked whether they backed the Navy’s cautious response recently when Iranian boats reportedly harassed U.S. vessels in the Persian Gulf.

Huckabee said anyone who challenges the Navy again should be prepared to go to the “gates of hell.” Thompson said anyone testing the Navy might soon meet the “virgins” that Islamic terrorists expect to meet in heaven.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul called the bellicose language frightening and reminiscent of the reaction to an alleged naval exchange that led to the Vietnam War. “I would certainly urge a lot more caution than I’m hearing here tonight,” Paul said.

Romney cracked that Paul should stop reading Iranian propaganda, drawing what sounded like boos from the audience and a glare from Paul.

Thompson took on Huckabee at another point, calling him a liberal and saying his criticism of President Bush’s foreign policy amounted to a “blame America first” philosophy.

“The Air Force has a saying that says that if you’re not catching flak, you’re not over the target,” Huckabee responded. “I’m catching the flak — I must be over the target.”

Romney and McCain traded jabs over the loss of auto and manufacturing jobs.

Romney criticized McCain for telling Michigan voters that some jobs won’t come back.

“Sometimes you have to tell people things they don’t want to hear,” McCain responded. “There are some jobs that aren’t coming back to Michigan. There are some jobs that aren’t coming back to South Carolina.”

He said, however, that he would help those who lost jobs.

All the candidates said they’d take several steps to boost the economy.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said he’d push through the “biggest tax cut in history.” Huckabee said he’d cut income-tax rates and control education and health-care costs. McCain said he’d make Bush’s tax cuts permanent and control spending. Romney said he’d cut middle-class taxes.

Gannett News Service contributed to this report.

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