DURHAM, N.H. — Republican presidential candidates elbowed one another for advantage Wednesday in a debate kicking off a fall sprint to the primaries — and needled new rival Fred Thompson for skipping it.
They worked to distinguish themselves from one another on such issues as experience and illegal immigration. But it was the new competition from Thompson, who declared his candidacy Wednesday evening on the Jay Leno program "The Tonight Show" and skipped the debate, that dominated the opening of the 90-minute face-off, televised nationally on the Fox News Channel.
"I'd rather be in New Hampshire with these fine people,'' said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
"Maybe we're up past his bedtime," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona to laughs and some groans from a Republican audience. "The people of New Hampshire expect to see you. They expect to see you a lot."
"Why the hurry? Why not take some more time off?" joked former Massachusetts
Gov. Mitt Romney, referring to Thompson's five-month wait before declaring his candidacy.
"This is a nomination you have to earn,'' said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. "Nobody's going to give it to you."
Even as eight candidates took the stage for their fifth debate of the campaign, they all were aware that they faced not only one another in the more intense, post-Labor Day campaign, but also Thompson.
The campaign enters the fall in flux — with Giuliani leading national polls, Romney leading in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Huckabee threatening to move up and Thompson drawing a lot of interest among undecided Republicans.
Thompson skipped the debate, ostensibly because he still wasn't a candidate when the debate was held, from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. EDT. But he announced his candidacy on the Leno program, taped before the debate, for airing afterward.
He also ran a 30-second television ad during the debate.
"We can't allow ourselves to become a weaker, less prosperous and more divided nation," Thompson said in the ad.
His refusal to participate in the debate irritated at least some New Hampshire Republicans.
``He seems to be getting off on the wrong foot,'' New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen told McClatchy.
New Hampshire voters, watching on camera from a nearby diner, added some drama to the debate by occasionally challenging candidates.
One, a father of a soldier in Iraq, criticized Romney for likening his sons' work on his campaign to service in the military. "It was wrong, sir,'' the man said. Romney, who apologized after the remark several weeks ago, said again that there was no comparison.
Another man questioned the family values of thrice-divorced Giuliani.
"I'm not running as the perfect candidate for president of the United States," Giuliani said. "I'm running as a human being."
On national security, McCain and Giuliani competed over who had better experience.
"I know war. I have seen war. I know how the military works. I know how the government works. I understand national security. I have led," McCain said.
"I was mayor of the largest city in the country, the third-largest government in the country,'' Giuliani said. "I was tested in that position with crisis almost every day."
On immigration, Romney and Giuliani grappled over their own histories.
Romney criticized Giuliani's 1994 statements welcoming illegal immigrants to New York City and promising police protection.
Giuliani said he promised police help to illegal immigrants to curb soaring crime in the city for everyone there, noting that the next crime might have been committed against a citizen. "I didn't have the luxury of political rhetoric,'' Giuliani said.
Romney also faced questions about his past, when illegal immigrants worked on his lawn and mayors in his state provided sanctuary for them. Romney said that he didn't know about the lawn care crew and that he didn't have power over the mayors.
Also appearing in the debate at the University of New Hampshire were Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado.