Candidates Skate Around the Issues in GOP Debate

Republicans distanced themselves from the president in the New Hampshire debate.

ByABC News
June 5, 2007, 10:26 PM

June 5, 2007 — -- In an arena that normally serves as the home of the hockey rink for the Saint Anselm College Hawks, the 10 declared Republican White House hopefuls threw elbows at one another, skated around issues, and attempted to score at their third official GOP presidential debate.

And while Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., found himself under attack for his support of a controversial Senate immigration reform bill, by far the most-derided people of the night were President Bush and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

Of those actually present in the Granite State, McCain took most of the hits from his rivals. His position on immigration came under sharp fire from most of the other candidates with Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., leading a chorus of criticism by warning that the bill will test "whether or not we will actually survive as a nation."

Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani dismissed McCain's legislation -- which is supported by the president -- as "a typical Washington mess."

"This is part of the problem in Washington: They say things and then it's not in the legislation," Giuliani said. "It does not provide information about who exited the United States. Now, tell me how you're going to figure out who's in the United States if you can't figure out who has left the United States."

But McCain defended his bill by casting it as a national security issue, and promised that the measure can be improved on the Senate floor. "We cannot [have] 12 million people washing around America illegally," the Arizona senator said, adding "for us to do nothing is silent and de facto amnesty."

Addressing the crowd, McCain said, "What we have done is what you expect us to do, my friends, and that's come together ... and sit down and figure out an approach to this problem." He added that "this isn't the bill that I would have written, but it does satisfy our national security challenges, which are severe and intense."

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., attacked the three front-runners -- Giuliani, McCain, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- for teaming up at times with liberal icon Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

"We need to move away from the Kennedy wing of the Republican Party," Hunter said.

With the exception of Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a libertarian who opposed the war from the start, there was little disagreement between the candidates on staying the course in Iraq. But McCain and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., both admitted that they didn't read the National Intelligence Estimate prepared for Congress in advance of the Iraq war in 2002, drawing criticism from former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore that senators "ought to read at least that kind of material."