MANCHESTER, N.H. — Just days before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, Republican presidential candidates Saturday night turned to critique the one prominent Republican not onstage with them — President Bush and his foreign policy.
Candidates took turns differing with Bush, particularly on his initial Iraq war strategy, which most of them called weak and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee called "arrogant." Most hedged their criticism, however, with praise and defense of the rest of Bush's defense strategy and his conduct of the war on terror.
The surprisingly civil foreign-policy exchange dominated the first half of a 90-minute debate that offered one last chance for candidates to shake up the race before Tuesday's primary. Polls showed Arizona Sen. John McCain leading, followed by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. They also pointed to a four-way battle for third place among Huckabee, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.
One familiar point of tension came over illegal immigration — Romney again criticized McCain for backing a plan that would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States. He called it "amnesty," a red-flag word to Republican conservatives.
"They should not be given a special right to stay here," Romney said.
McCain countered that his proposal was not amnesty because it would force illegal immigrants to pay penalties and earn citizenship.
"You can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads and they still won't be true," McCain said.
McCain taunted Romney repeatedly with similarly sharp-edged comments, tweaking him as someone who changes his position on issues opportunistically, implying that Romney is unprincipled.
"I agree that you are the candidate of change, ha-ha-ha," McCain told Romney with open derision.
Romney responded with pleas that the candidates not employ "personal barbs" but rather debate issues on their merits.
On foreign policy, Huckabee defended his assertion that Bush's doctrine has been arrogant. He cited former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld's refusal to heed military advice and send more troops to Iraq as well as Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive strikes.
"There were times when we gave the world the impression that we were going to ignore what they thought or what they felt, and we were going to do whatever it is we wanted to do," Huckabee said.
McCain reminded voters that he was the only candidate who defied Rumsfeld early in the Iraq war and urged more troops at the risk of appearing disloyal to Bush. "I'm the only one here that disagreed at the time," McCain said. "And I'm the only one at the time that said we've got to employ a new strategy."
Yet he also lauded Bush, saying he deserves credit for re-organizing the government and averting a second terrorist attack since 2001.
Thompson defended the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive military action.
"We must do whatever is necessary to protect ourselves," he said.
Giuliani praised Bush's foreign policy. "That led to Afghanistan. It led to Iraq. It's led to the Patriot Act. It's led to electronic surveillance. It led to changing our intelligence services. All that is very, very good."
But he too gently criticized Bush for not building up the military, cut during the 1990s after the Cold War.
"President Bush has never made up for that. We need at least 10 more combat brigades. We need our Marines at 200,000. We need a 300-ship navy. This president should do it now. If I'm president, I'll do it immediately," Giuliani said.