GOP candidates spar in N.H.
Romney blasts Giuliani over immigration
DURHAM, N.H. - Mitt Romney attacked Rudy Giuliani on illegal immigration last night, accusing him of creating a "magnet" for illegal immigrants by making New York a "sanctuary city" while he was mayor.
But in the first debate of the fall campaign season, both Romney and Giuliani struggled to keep their balance amid sideswipes from Senator John McCain of Arizona, who sharply questioned Romney's assessment of the situation in Iraq and Giuliani's level of experience.
Romney also faced pointed questions from a group of New Hampshire residents gathered at a nearby restaurant to pose queries to the candidates. The father of a soldier stationed in Iraq told Romney that he and his wife were deeply offended at a comment Romney made last month in which he seemed to compare his sons' work for his campaign with military service.
"It was wrong, sir, and you never should have said it," the father said.
"Well, there is no comparison, of course," Romney replied, stopping short of directly apologizing.
The former Massachusetts governor, who is leading in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire but trailing Giuliani in national polls, tried to put the former mayor on the defensive on immigration, an issue that has animated the GOP base this year.
"I think saying as he did, if you happen to be an undocumented alien, we want you in New York, we'll protect you in New York, I think that contributed to 3 million illegals in this country becoming 12 million illegals coming into this country," Romney said.
Giuliani responded that he had worked hard to ensure that illegal immigrants who committed crimes were convicted and deported, a strategy that helped to make New York safer than Boston, among other cities.
The debate, sponsored by FOX News Channel and held at the University of New Hampshire's Whittemore Center, was the Republican candidates' fifth meeting, but it had a special significance because it marked the opening of the fall campaign season, when voters typically begin paying closer attention to the party primary races. The GOP field had thinned by one since the candidates met in Iowa last month, with former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson dropping out, but the specter of a new candidacy loomed over the evening.
Fred Thompson, the "Law and Order" actor and former Tennessee senator, skipped the debate last night but aired his first television ad during the debate and then formally announced his candidacy for president on NBC's "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
Moderator Brit Hume began the 90-minute exchange by giving the candidates a chance to rib Thompson, whose announcement comes after several months of delays and turmoil within his nascent campaign, for trying to grab headlines without having to withstand the heat of debate.
Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, joked that perhaps Thompson would prove to be like Nashville singer George Jones, "who was often called 'no-show George' for not showing up at his own concerts."
McCain cracked, "Maybe we're up past his bedtime."
The debate also forced Giuliani and Romney to defend their records in elected office. Asked how he could present himself as a tax-cutter when he raised fees and fines by $750 million in Massachusetts, Romney insisted - contrary to some independent analyses - that the total was only $250 million. He added that in the process, he had bailed the Commonwealth out of a $3 billion-plus budget deficit - a total that some say was based on overblown projections.
On immigration, Giuliani sidestepped a question asking whether he would continue to "protect illegals" in light of a 1994 statement he made appearing to welcome illegal immigrants to his city, saying that the federal government gave him no choice because it deported only a tiny fraction of the illegal immigrants in his city.
Neither Romney nor Giuliani directly answered a question from John Rogers, a Haverhill police lieutenant, about what they would do with the illegal immigrants who are here already. Afterward, Rogers said he was disappointed.
"It was the same old, same old," said Rogers, 44, who lives in Brentwood, N.H.
Huckabee, who has distinguished himself in previous debates with pithy one-liners, was also desperate for attention last night.
Huckabee finished second in the Ames straw poll last month, but he has struggled to raise money and to develop a national profile.
For McCain, the onetime front-runner whose campaign faltered earlier this summer amid money troubles and his controversial stands on issues like immigration and the war, the object last night was to grab the spotlight. McCain did that on several occasions by challenging his rivals.
At one point he tried to bring Romney up short on Iraq after Romney said the surge was "apparently working," and that "if the surge is working" the US can begin drawing down its troop levels.
"Governor, the surge is working," McCain said. "The surge is working, sir."
"That's just what I said," Romney replied.
"It is working," McCain shot back. "No, not 'apparently.' It's working."
Near the end of the debate, a student at the diner asked Giuliani to comment on family values, considering he does not have "as strong of a family as Mitt." Giuliani, who has been married three times, gently deflected the question.
"I'm not running as the perfect candidate for president of the United States," he said. "I'm running as a human being who has been very successful as a leader and had definable results in a situation in which people thought it was impossible to accomplish these things."