Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney clashed with Mike Huckabee on foreign policy and John McCain on immigration Saturday night in a high-stakes presidential campaign debate three days before the New Hampshire primary.
"It's not amnesty," McCain shot back after Romney criticized his plan for overhauling the immigration system. "You can spend your whole fortune on these attacks ads, my friend, but it's not true."
Earlier, Romney criticized Huckabee for having written that the Bush administration was guilty of an "arrogant bunker mentality" on foreign policy.
"Did you read the article before you commented on it," asked Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor.
"I read the article, the whole article," shot back Romney.
Romney's aggressive demeanor reflected the stakes in the wide-open race for the Republican presidential nomination. Huckabee defeated him in the Iowa caucuses on Thursday with an underfunded campaign. Now Romney faces a strong challenge from a resurgent McCain in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary next Tuesday.
Others take back seat
Former Sen. Fred Thompson, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Texas Rep. Ron Paul also shared the stage, but they were largely eclipsed for significant portions of the 90-minute debate as Romney, McCain and Huckabee struggled for advantage.
Romney walked on stage with his first win under his belt, a triumph in the scarcely-contested Wyoming caucuses. The former Massachusetts governor, seeking to become the first Mormon president, said the outcome was "just the beginning."
A pre-debate poll suggested McCain's momentum had carried him into a narrow lead over Romney in New Hampshire, and that Huckabee was in third place place. It also suggested he had not yet profited from his victory in Iowa, but the results of an election in one state often take several days to show up in surveys in another state.
Both Huckabee and McCain jabbed at Romney for having changed his position on numerous issues such as abortion, gun control and gay rights.
"You are the candidate of change," McCain said with a laugh.
And Huckabee, admonished not to characterize Romney's position on the Iraq war, replied, "which one."
Challenging Huckabee's statements
Romney's aides were at work challenging Huckabee's truth-telling even when their candidate himself did not.
As the debate unfolded and Huckabee said he had supported President Bush's decision a year ago to increase troop strength in Iraq, Romney's campaign quickly emailed reporters with a Huckabee quote to a different effect. "Well, I'm not sure that I support the troop surge, if that surge has to come from our Guard and Reserve troops, which have really been overly stretched," it said he told MSNBC last January.
McCain, whose candidacy appeared at the point of collapse last summer, sought to stress his national security credentials against major rivals whose political resumes are limited to governorships.
He said he had been the first one in the race to say the president's initial strategy in the war in Iraq was not working, "And I again say that I'm glad to know that now everybody supported the surge."
He added that "I was criticized by Republicans at that time. And that was a low point, but I stuck to it. I didn't change. I didn't say we needed a secret plan for withdrawal."
Looking at Bush's foreign policy
All six men on stage sought to weave their way through a question about whether they would run on Bush's foreign policy or run against it.
McCain said Bush deserves credit for his successes as he should take the blame for failures.
Huckabee said the administration's arrogance was reflected in former defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld saying an invasion force of 180,000 troops would be sufficient in Iraq.
Thompson agreed that the administration had gone to war in Iraq without enough troops. "Presidents are not perfect. Policies are not perfect," he said, although he added, "we are on our way toward prevailing there."
Giuliani said Bush "got the big decision of his presidency right ... when he put us on offense against Islamic terrorists."
Paul, mounting a quixotic campaign, stuck to his insistence that the war should end.