Eight Republican presidential candidates stood on the same stage in Durham, N.H., Wednesday night for their fifth debate and the usual issues of illegal immigration, Iraq and national security were front and center.
But the first thing the candidates were asked about? The elephant not in the room.
Fred Thompson, the newly announced candidate in the Republican field, was notably absent from the debate. He was taping an appearance on "The Tonight Show" in Burbank, Calif., just before the debate kicked off here in this key early primary state.
Fox News moderator Brit Hume noted that without even officially entering the race, Thompson was placing second or third in national and state polls, which raises the question: Who was smarter, Thompson for waiting or these eight candidates for being out on the trail and at the debate?
"Well, Brit, I was scheduled to be on 'Jay Leno' tonight, but I gave up my slot for somebody else because I'd rather be in New Hampshire with these fine people," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said.
"You know, one thing I know about New Hampshire, and I know well, is that the people of New Hampshire expect to see you. They expect to see you a lot," Arizona Sen. John McCain said.
"And they expect to see you at town hall meetings and at places all over this great state of New Hampshire, and they expect to examine you before they make up their mind."
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani drew laughter from the audience for saying that Thompson has done "a pretty good job of playing my part on 'Law & Order.' I personally prefer the real thing."
No 'Sanctuary' for Giuliani Illegal Immigration Issue
Illegal immigration was the first issue the candidates addressed and it is one that fueled a back and forth between the Romney and Giuliani campaigns over the last month. Wednesday night marked the first time the two candidates engaged in head-to-head debate on this issue and neither candidate backed down from his positions and rhetoric.
Romney said on the issue of immigration, he and Giuliani "just simply disagree."
"I think we should reduce federal funding to cities that call themselves sanctuary cities," Romney said. "I think saying as he did, if you happen to be an undocumented alien, we want you in New York, we'll protect you in New York, I think that contributed to 3 million illegals in this country becoming 12 million illegals coming into this country. Amnesty is not the right answer for this problem."
Giuliani fired back, saying he could not fall back on "political rhetoric" when the safety and security of the citizens of New York City was on his shoulders.
"[T]he reality is, my programs and policies led to a city that was the safest large city in the country, so they must have been sensible policies," Giuliani said.
In his most aggressive moment of the night, McCain, who has staked his candidacy on the outcome of the Iraq War, seized on Romney's hedged statement that the surge in Iraq is "apparently" working.
"It is working. No, not 'apparently.' it's working. It's working because we've got a great general. We've got a good strategy. Anbar province, things have improved," McCain said. "And I can assure you, it's more than apparent, it is working and we have to rally the American people."
Fox News' Chris Wallace brought up family values by asking Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and Calif. Rep. Duncan Hunter their opinion on the resignation about-face by Idaho Sen. Larry Craig.
Craig pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after being arrested in a bathroom sex sting in Minnesota in June and was under pressure from Republicans in Washington to step down from his Senate seat.
Brownback said it was good that Craig was taking responsibility for his actions by resigning from office and he should stick with that decision. He stressed that the Republican Party needs to stand up for family values. "[W]e shouldn't walk away from family values for fear that instances like this happen within our party," Brownback said.
The front-runners were not asked about Craig's decision to reconsider his resignation. Romney said last week that Craig's actions were "disgusting."
The questions focused on national security, Iraq, taxes and immigration; education and health care did not come up.