WASHINGTON - The leading Republican presidential candidates last night ripped into one another on the GOP's signature issue, immigration, with Rudy Giuliani accusing rival Mitt Romney of running a "sanctuary mansion" by employing undocumented workers at his home in suburban Boston.
The former Massachusetts governor "has had by far the worst record" on stemming illegal immigration, Giuliani said during a debate in St. Petersburg, Fla. featuring voter-generated questions submitted on the Internet. "At his own home, illegal immigrants were being employed. I would say he had a sanctuary mansion, not just a sanctuary city."
A perturbed Romney quickly shot back, rejecting the charge that it was his fault that a company he had hired to do landscaping at his Belmont house had used undocumented workers. He said he could not simply ask people "with funny accents" for their employment papers.
"Mayor, you know better than that," Romney said forcefully, calling it offensive to suggest that a homeowner should demand to see evidence that contracted workers are in the country legally. "Is that what you're suggesting?"
Romney also accused the former New York mayor of coddling illegal immigrants in his own city by allowing undocumented residents to receive healthcare and education and report crimes without fear of being deported. Romney accused Giuliani of bringing a lawsuit to protect New York's status as a "sanctuary city."
The sharp exchange illustrated the volatility of illegal immigration in the Republican primary and kicked off a rollicking debate that showcased the sharpest and angriest exchanges among the GOP contenders since the campaign began. Not only did the presumed front-runners - Romney, Giuliani, and Senator John McCain of Arizona - go after one another, but even those lagging in the polls found themselves targets of pointed attacks in the debate, which was sponsored by CNN and YouTube and featured video questions submitted online.
When Representative Ron Paul of Texas, the only GOP presidential candidate to oppose the Iraq war, called for the troops to be brought home, McCain took the opportunity to display his pro-war credentials.
"That kind of isolationism, sir, is what caused World War II," McCain said.
McCain also scorned Romney for saying he would not detail which interrogation techniques amounted to torture, in particular waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning. "I'm astonished that you don't know what waterboarding is," McCain told Romney, who responded that he knew what it meant, but would not reveal to the nation's enemies which techniques he might use and which he might not.
The debate - the eighth major face-off for the Republican candidates - reflected a GOP primary race that has become more unsettled and more negative. The strong showing in recent Iowa polls by former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas - once dismissed as an affable also-ran - has Romney, Giuliani, and McCain on edge, as they try to figure out how to keep Huckabee from upsetting what was becoming a three-person race.
That nervousness was evident last night, as candidates used the YouTube questions as opportunities to knock their rivals - a divergence from previous debates, when Republican candidates directed most of their vitriol at the Democrats, especially Senator Hillary Clinton of New York. On matters ranging from gun control to Iraq and taxes, the candidates used nearly every question to separate themselves from their foes for the nomination, usually by attacking them.
Former senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who has struggled in national and state polls after a much-ballyhooed, late entrance into the race, used his allotted 30-second campaign video to criticize Romney and Huckabee for being insufficiently conservative.
The video clip showed Romney voicing a pro-abortion rights position during a 1994 Senate debate, and Huckabee indicating he would support a tax increase. "We will win next year by sticking to our conservative principles," the Thompson video concluded.
Romney responded by once again disavowing his previous support for abortion rights. "I'm not sure who that young guy was at the beginning of the film," Romney said in jest, then added: "I was wrong."
Huckabee defended his tax record, saying the sales tax in Arkansas rose one percent when he was governor, but that he was able to eliminate the so-called marriage penalty in income tax and cut capital-gains taxes as well.
Questions were selected from 4,927 videos submitted to YouTube, an Internet site that allows Web users to post videos. Republicans initially rejected the idea of a YouTube debate similar to the summer Democratic debate, but they eventually agreed, and received nearly 2,000 more questions than were submitted for the Democrats' YouTube face-off.
On guns, all the candidates expressed support for the right to bear arms, with Representative Duncan Hunter of California describing it as an important part of America's security. But Giuliani - who favored gun control as New York mayor - drew boos from the crowd when he said the amendment has its limits. "Government can impose reasonable restrictions," Giuliani said.
After hearing an emotional appeal from a self-described gay military veteran with more than 40 years of service, none of the candidates advocated a policy to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. "This isn't the time. We're in the middle of a war," said Romney, who once said he looked forward to the day when gays and lesbians could serve openly.
A question on the Bible directed to Giuliani, whose more liberal social views and personal life have turned off some Christian conservatives, provoked an awkward exchange between him and Huckabee, a Baptist minister, who said, "Do I need to help you out, mayor, on this one?"
"I think it's the greatest book ever written," Giuliani said. "I read it frequently. I read it very frequently when I've gone through the bigger crises in my life."
The question was sensitive for Romney, too, because his religion - he is Mormon - has been an obstacle in winning over some evangelicals. Romney said he believes the Bible "was the word of God."
But the most contentious exchanges occurred during the discussion of immigration.
Most of the candidates sought to establish themselves as the toughest on the issue, causing Congress's most vocal opponent of illegal immigration, Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado, to exclaim in delight. "All I've heard is people trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo!" he said when he finally got a chance to speak.
McCain, whose support for comprehensive immigration reform has severely damaged his presidential bid, acknowledged that Americans want the borders secured first and foremost, but he lamented that the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the country had been unjustly demonized. "They need some protections under the law," he said. "They need some of our love and compassion."
After his heated exchange with Giuliani, Romney went after Huckabee for supporting state education benefits for the children of illegal immigrants, saying, "Mike, that's not your money. That's the taxpayers' money." Huckabee responded indignantly that he had worked his way through college and that these children deserved access to education, too.
Such attacks were inevitable now that the former Arkansas governor is mounting a serious threat to Romney's lead in Iowa.
"When you get attacked, it's not always bad," Huckabee said last night. "When they're kicking you in the rear, it's just proving you're still out front."