DES MOINES -- Republican presidential candidates Sunday wrangled over abortion rights and distanced themselves from President Bush on foreign policy — and Vice President Cheney's power — in their first debate from the critical state of Iowa.
The 90-minute forum, hosted by ABC's This Week With George Stephanopoulos, came six days before a GOP straw poll in Ames, Iowa, that in the past has winnowed the field of lagging candidates.
The debate's exchanges at Drake University were a bit sharper and pricklier than in this year's previous Republican debates. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who leads in Iowa polls, was a target of his rivals. Second-tier contenders made appeals aimed at rallying conservative Christians, an important part of GOP politics here.
And on some issues, the candidates were more than willing to discuss their differences with Bush.
"I can tell you I'm not a carbon copy of Bush, and there are things I would do that would be done differently," Romney said when asked about Bush's commitment to spread democracy around the world through elections.
"In some cases maybe going to elections so quickly is a mistake," former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani said.
On the Iraq war, none of the major GOP candidates drew distinctions between themselves and Bush, though long shot Rep. Ron Paul of Texas repeated his call that U.S. troops should "just come home." Arizona Sen. John McCain made a plea to sustain the increase in U.S. forces in Iraq that he said was showing military progress.
"The challenge of the 21st century is the struggle against radical Islamic extremism," McCain said.
Still, when asked about the role Vice President Cheney has played in the Bush administration, McCain said pointedly that if he were elected, "I would be very careful that everybody understood that there's only one president."
"Dick Cheney came in with a lot of experience … on defense, foreign policy issues," Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback said. "And I think the president overrelied on that."
Romney leads at 26% in an ABC News/Washington Post statewide poll of likely Republican caucusgoers published Sunday. Reporters waiting for the debate to start saw one likely reason why: In the 20 minutes before This Week began, two Romney ads on immigration were aired on the ABC affiliate.
Romney is doing the most extensive organizing for Saturday's straw poll. Giuliani and McCain have said they won't compete in it.For second-tier candidates, the straw poll has been a test of whether to continue. The Iowa caucuses, set for January, open the 2008 contests.
Brownback and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee have targeted social conservatives for support in the straw poll. Brownback's campaign has been making automated phone calls to voters blasting Romney on abortion.
"I never said I was pro-choice, but my position was effectively pro-choice," Romney said when asked at the debate about the calls. "I changed my position." He added: "I get tired of people who are holier-than-thou because they've been pro-life longer than I have."
Romney and Giuliani criticized Democratic contender Barack Obama for publicly threatening to take unilateral military action in Pakistan against al-Qaeda targets if the Musharraf regime refused to act. At a Democratic debate nearly two weeks earlier, the Illinois senator also said he was willing to sit down with such U.S. foes as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.
"In one week he went from saying he's going to sit down, you know, for tea, with our enemies, but then he's going to bomb our allies," Romney said. "He's gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week."
Also participating in the debate were U.S. representatives Duncan Hunter of California and Tom Tancredo of Colorado, and former governor Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin.
In the ABC News/Washington Post poll, Romney was followed by Giuliani at 14% and former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson at 13%. McCain and Huckabee were at 8%. The survey has a margin of error of +/-5 percentage points.