MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Republican presidential candidates last night professed their love for God, country, and family -- but not for President Bush -- as they argued with one another on matters ranging from immigration to energy policy and the war in Iraq.
As lightning crackled during their first New Hampshire debate of the 2008 campaign, the 10 candidates played to the party's conservative base, decrying the Democrats' approach to Iraq, warning of the dangers of illegal immigration, and promising to take the party back to its conservative roots.
But there was little affection displayed for Bush, who several candidates said is wrong on immigration, mishandled the postinvasion phase in Iraq, and lacks diplomatic skills.
"I certainly wouldn't send him to the United Nations," said Tommy Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor and a onetime member of Bush's Cabinet, when asked what role he might envision for the president after the election . Thompson said he would put Bush on "the lecture circuit," talking to young people.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney remarked that the Bush administration was "underprepared and underplanned" for post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Senator John McCain of Arizona took Bush to task on spending , citing pork-barrel projects such as the $233 million "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska.
Representative Tom Tancredo , who has criticized Bush for offering an immigration bill that Tancredo said would grant amnesty to 12 million undocumented immigrants, pointed out that he was once asked by Bush adviser Karl Rove never to come to the White House again. "I would have to tell George Bush exactly the same thing Karl Rove told me," said Tancredo, of Colorado.
The GOP candidates, speaking at Saint Anselm College, battled to establish themselves as the true conservatives in the race, with most calling Iraq a central battleground against terrorism and declaring a strong belief in God.
McCain, who is near the top of the crowd in several polls, found himself on the defensive on the issue of immigration.
"The problem with this immigration plan is that it has no real unifying purpose," said former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, referring to the measure McCain co authored, which is now being debated in the Senate. He said the bill, a compromise effort that would give 12 million undocumented immigrants a chance to become legal residents, while buttressing border security, could "make things worse."
McCain attacked Romney on Monday, accusing him of advancing "silent amnesty" by failing to offer an alternative to the contentious bill. Romney replied during the debate that the proposed "Z" visa that would legalize most of the 12 million immigrants was "unfair" because it favored them over others who have been waiting in line to get into the country legally.
Asked by a voter how he could run campaign ads in Spanish while opposing a more open immigration policy, Romney smiled.
"Let me make it real clear: I am not anti-immigrant. I love legal immigrants. I hope they vote for me," Romney said. "I'm going to reach out in any language I can."
Tancredo declared he would never run a campaign ad in Spanish, while McCain defended immigrants as "God's children," many of whom have given their lives for their adopted country in war. Visit the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C., McCain told the New Hampshire voters who asked questions during the second half of the debate, and "you'll find a whole lot of Hispanic names."
The candidates -- including Representative Ron Paul of Texas, former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Representative Duncan Hunter of California, and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas -- were virtually united in expressing concern about Iran's nuclear program, with many saying they would consider using tactical nuclear weapons as a last resort to keep the rogue nation from developing its own arsenal.
Giuliani defended his pro abortion-rights position, which many in the GOP contend is troublesome for a Republican candidate.
Lightning interrupted Giuliani's remarks on abortion several times as he spoke during the stormy evening, causing the former mayor to look skyward and chuckle, saying that for someone who was educated in Catholic parochial schools, "this is a very frightening thing."
"My view of abortion is that it's wrong, but that the government should not be forcing that decision on a woman," Giuliani said.
Romney, meanwhile, defended his anti abortion views against complaints that he is a recent convert to the position. "I'm not going to apologize for the fact that I became pro life," Romney said.
Brownback, one of the strongest antiabortion voices on Capitol Hill, said he did not think the party could nominate someone who favored abortion rights.
On energy, McCain called for a new focus on nuclear power to ease dependence on foreign oil, while Romney said oil companies should be investing more of their profits in repairing refineries. All the candidates said they would not change the "don't ask, don't tell policy" governing gays and lesbians in the military.
Seeking to distinguish themselves in the crowded field, the 10 candidates -- pointing out on stage that they may well have an 11th opponent, former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson -- underscored their personal histories and experience.
The former governors and former mayor spoke dismissively of Washington politics, an appeal to independent voters and a tacit critique of the US senators and congressmen on stage.
Romney, introducing himself before the debate, described himself first as "a husband, a father, a grandfather" before mentioning that he used to be governor of Massachusetts. He repeated earlier statements that he would not distance himself from his Mormon religion, and declared he believed in God, the bible, and that "Jesus Christ is my savior."
Paul was alone among the group in denouncing the war in Iraq, saying, "the sooner we come home, the better." Huckabee, a former pastor, spoke at length about his belief that God created the earth, and said the most pressing moral issue facing the country is "our respect, our sanctity, our value for every human life" -- a philosophy, he said, which included caring for children and the elderly.
And while several of the candidates said GOP corruption scandals lost the party its majorities in the House and Senate, many defended I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who was sentenced yesterday for 30 months in prison for lying to a grand jury.
None said he would pardon Libby, but most contended that the sentence given to the former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney was harsh. Several said they would consider a pardon once Libby's appeals were completed.