Thu, Jun 07, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Republican hopefuls focus on Iraq, Iran

NEW HAMPSHIRE DEBATE The leading candidates avoided major gaffes, while none of the long-shot contenders appeared to break out, although some did score points

AGENCIES , MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIRE

Republican presidential hopefuls pose prior to the start of their debate on Tuesday at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. From left: Representative Tom Tancredo; former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson; Senator Sam Brownback; former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney; former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani; Senator John McCain; former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee; Representative Duncan Hunter; former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore and Representative Ron Paul.

PHOTO: AFP

US Republican presidential hopefuls hammered Democrats on Iraq on Tuesday and began to split with beleaguered US President George W. Bush in their third 2008 campaign debate.

Ten candidates vying for the party's presidential nomination also turned on one another over illegal immigration as they crammed onto the same stage in New Hampshire as their Democratic rivals two nights earlier.

However, they agreed that Iran must not develop atomic weapons even if a tactical nuclear strike is needed to stop it and accused Democrats of being soft on the issue.

The Manchester debate was the latest step in the gruelling campaign running up to caucus and primary contests early next year for both party nominations.

It was notable for one man who was not there -- actor and former senator Fred Thompson, expected to leap into the top-tier of the field when he formally enters the race within weeks.

Leading candidates Senator John McCain, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and the ex-mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani avoided major gaffes, and none of the long-shot contenders appeared to break out.

"The Democrats are in denial," said Giuliani, adding that the US decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was "absolutely the right thing to do."

"It's unthinkable to leave Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq and be able to fight the war on terror," he said.

McCain took direct aim at Democratic front-runner Senator Hillary Clinton, who like her party rivals has vowed to end the war if she is elected president.

"When Senator Clinton says this is Mr. Bush's war, that this is President Bush's war -- when President Clinton was in power, I didn't say that Bosnia, our intervention there was President Clinton's war," McCain said.

"When we intervened in Kosovo, I didn't say it was President Clinton's war," he said.

Romney condemned Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid for his comment last month that "the war in Iraq is lost."

"Harry Reid was wrong. We did not lose the war in Iraq. And that's not the sort of thing you say when you have men and women in harm's way," Romney said.

There were also signs Republican candidates were beginning to edge away from Bush, and his bottom-rung approval ratings, on Iraq, and other issues.

"We did, however, not do a great job after we knocked down Saddam Hussein and won the war to take him down and his military," Romney said. "I think we made mistakes following the conduct or the collapse of Saddam's government."

McCain went further, saying the problem in Iraq was "the misman-agement of the conflict."

Longshot candidate Representative Tom Tancredo accused Bush of presiding over a new era of bloated and profligate government in Washington.

"The president ran as a conservative and governed as a liberal," he said.

When asked whether a tactical nuclear strike against Iran might be necessary, Giuliani said: "You shouldn't take any options off the table."

A second-tier candidate, California Representative Duncan Hunter, was more direct, saying the US reserved the right to dissuade Iran militarily.

"I would authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons if there was no other way to preempt those particular centrifuges," he said, while noting it could probably be done with conventional weapons.

But Texas Representative Ron Paul, a candidate drawing about 2 percent in opinion polls, opposed a nuclear strike on moral grounds and because he believed Iran was no threat to US national security.

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