St. Petersburg, Fla. - Welcome to fight night. With the final round of a yearlong campaign approaching, the Republican presidential race grew remarkably bitter as the top contenders jockeyed for the upper hand - and sought it by tearing down one another.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Republican candidates' favorite target in a debate just a month ago, no longer was their preferred punching bag.
"It's now become personal. It doesn't look like any of these guys like each other," said Scott Reed, campaign manager for Republican Bob Dole's 1996 bid.
The most fierce exchanges came from the candidates with the most at stake five weeks before the voting begins; the frequent pot shots from Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson in particular underscored the extraordinary volatile state of the race in which any candidate seemingly has a chance to win. Mike Huckabee, an underdog who has gained considerable ground in leadoff caucus state of Iowa, faced heavy criticism.
Giuliani, a former New York mayor, leads in national polls but trails Romney in early voting Iowa and New Hampshire. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, faces challenges from Huckabee in Iowa, and from Giuliani and Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire. Thompson is looking to break out in Iowa.
In an indication that the campaign is on the verge of venturing deeper into character issues and private matters, Giuliani found himself forced to answer a question about a report that the then-mayor hid the cost of his security detail to obscure the cost of their trips with him to a Long Island resort as he began an extramarital affair with current wife Judith Nathan.
"First of all, it's not true," Giuliani said during Wednesday's debate, sponsored by CNN-YouTube, hours after the online publication, The Politico, broke the story.
"I had 24-hour security for the eight years that I was mayor. They followed me everyplace I went," he said, citing threats. "I had nothing to do with the handling of their records, and they were handled, as far as I know, perfectly appropriately."
A testy exchange on immigration, a heated issue that divides the GOP field, opened the debate and set the tone. The responses showed who was willing to throw the sharpest elbows - and who was receiving the most.
In biting comments, Giuliani accused Romney of running a "sanctuary mansion" that employed illegal immigrants as gardeners and called him "holier than thou." Equally as sharp-tongued, Romney scolded Giuliani, saying "Mayor, you know better than that" and argued that it would "not be American" to check the papers of workers employed by a contractor simply because they have a "funny accent."
At times, the two talked over one another, alternatively drawing both boos and cheers from the audience.
Thompson took on both.
He argued that Romney supported President Bush's unpopular comprehensive immigration reform plan and sarcastically added: "Now, he's taken another position, surprisingly." In a not-so-subtle dig at Giuliani's disgraced former Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, Thompson also slyly said: "We've all had people probably that we have hired that in retrospect probably is a bad decision."
In what amounted to one of the first video attacks of the campaign, the former Tennessee senator questioned the conservative credentials of two rivals in a YouTube clip. Using their own years-old words on the issues, the video from Thompson highlighted Romney's previous support for abortion rights and Huckabee's backing of income tax or sales tax hikes.
Huckabee - a former Arkansas governor beloved by conservatives and surging in leadoff caucus state of Iowa - took repeated shots from his opponents. "When they're kicking you in the rear, it's just proving you're still out front," he said. But even the underdog hit back at his rivals, telling Romney at one point "lets just be factual" on Huckabee's immigration record - implying the ex-governor was not.
Romney continued Thursday to hammer at Huckabee's record on immigration and taxes, and likened his history of ethics controversies to another former Arkansas governor - Bill Clinton.
"I know there were a number of ethical charges and actual fines and violations," Romney told MSNBC. "That's a little reminiscent of the Clinton years."
As the others engaged in spats, McCain played the part of an adult during the debate, explaining in even tones why the country must first secure its borders but then address other issues arising because of a failed immigration policy.
He lamented "rhetoric that unfortunately contributes nothing to the national dialogue."
At one point, McCain gave a history lesson to libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul, who wants to pull troops out of Iraq, saying: "that kind of isolationism, sir, is what caused World War II." He added: "We allowed (Adolf) Hitler to come to power with that kind of attitude of isolationism and appeasement."
In a tit-for-tat with Romney over torture, McCain chided, "Well, governor, I'm astonished that you haven't found out what waterboarding is" and then continued to lecture him on the interrogation technique that simulates drowning.
But even McCain got in his digs. On a question about runaway federal spending, he brought up the line-item veto power "which Rudy Giuliani opposed so he could protect his $250 million worth of pork."
The debate ended as it began, with Romney and Giuliani in a deeply personal dispute. This time, it was over the New York Yankees vs. the Boston Red Sox.
"When I was mayor of New York City, the Yankees won four world championships," Giuliani said. "Since I've left being mayor of New York City, the Yankees have won none."
Romney, who was off by one year - 87 instead of 86 - on the length of the Red Sox World Series drought, replied: "Like most Americans, we love our sports teams and hate the Yankees."
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