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McCain Sets Self Apart in Debate

Commenting on Thompson's potential campaign, former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III said the actor would have to prove his conservative credentials. "We don't know what Fred Thompson is," he said. Former Wisconsin governor Tommy G. Thompson said: "If you're talking about a reliable conservative, it is this Thompson -- Tommy Thompson -- not the other, that's the conservative."

The three GOP front-runners -- Giuliani, McCain and Romney -- each had moments in which they shined, providing voters in New Hampshire and nationwide glimpses of their potential strengths.

Responding to the first question from the audience, McCain rose to address a woman whose brother was killed in Iraq. Looking at her, he used the moment to underline his argument for continuing to fight against insurgents there, saying: "I believe we have a strategy which can succeed, so that the sacrifice of your brother would not be in vain."

Romney offered an eloquent answer to questions about his Mormon faith, and Giuliani effectively used the recent alleged plot to bomb fuel tanks at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to emphasize his experiences after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "Iraq is part of the overall terrorist war against the United States," Giuliani said. "The problem the Democrats make is they're in denial."

The candidates said they would not remove the option of using nuclear weapons to prevent Iran from obtaining such weapons, and they also fielded questions about abortion, religion, health care and global warming. All said they agreed with the president's troop increase in Iraq except Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), who flatly declared: "It was a mistake to go, so it's a mistake to stay."

But the group joined together in criticizing Bush. The president remains popular among a sizable majority of Republicans, but his overall approval ratings make him a potential liability in a general election.

When the GOP candidates were pressed to say how they might use the president in their administration, Tommy Thompson replied, "Well, I certainly wouldn't send him to the United Nations."

Brownback suggested that he preferred former presidents to stay in the background, and criticized Bill Clinton for "injecting" himself into national policy debates.

Tancredo attacked Bush for what he considers turning his back on conservative principles. Recalling that White House senior adviser Karl Rove once told him not to "darken the doorstep of the White House," Tancredo said, "As president, I would have to tell George Bush exactly what Karl Rove told me."

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee blamed the Bush administration and congressional Republicans for the Democratic takeover of Congress last fall.

"We've lost credibility," he said, "the way we bungled Katrina, the fact that there was corruption that was unchecked in Washington."

Giuliani, McCain and Romney were criticized by Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) for standing now or in the past with Bill Clinton and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on issues such as immigration, gun control and health care. "I think the guy who's got the most influence right here with these three gentlemen is Ted Kennedy," Hunter said.

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