GOFFSTOWN, N.H. -- The trailing candidates in the Republican presidential contest took center stage in a New Hampshire debate last night that featured talk about possible nuclear strikes against Iran, some surprisingly barbed opinions about President Bush and lively exchanges over immigration.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, an immigration foe who is the closest thing to a single-issue candidate in the field of 10, said he is willing to do "whatever is necessary" to defeat the immigration overhaul plan now before Congress.
"We're talking about something that goes to the very heart of this nation: whether or not we will actually survive as a nation," said the Colorado congressman, who vowed to work for the defeat of any Republican who voted for the plan.
A debate questioner noted that Tancredo had been labeled as part of the party's "know-nothing wing" by Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, which prompted Sen. John McCain to quip: "I agree with Judd Gregg. He's a great senator."
The Arizona senator, a sponsor of the immigration deal and its most prominent proponent in the GOP campaign, implied that some opposition on immigration stems from anti-Hispanic bias.
"We know what we're talking about is the latest wave of migrants into this country. We have to stop the illegal immigration. But we've had waves throughout our history. Hispanics is what we're talking about," said McCain.
He noted the sacrifices made by Hispanic soldiers in Vietnam and Iraq, including non-citizens who "love this country so much that they're willing to risk their lives in its service in order to accelerate their path to citizenship and enjoy the bountiful, blessed nation."
Rudolph W. Giuliani, who criticized the absence of a database in the immigration bill that would track the movement of foreigners out of the country, said he was "very uncomfortable" with Tancredo's views. The New Yorker noted that Abraham Lincoln had fought the Know Nothings, the name applied to the anti-Catholic, anti-foreigner movement of the mid-19th century.
Mitt Romney, who joined other candidates in endorsing the idea of making English the nation's official language, was accused of flip-flopping on immigration and asked why he is broadcasting political ads in Spanish and maintaining a Spanish-language Web site for his campaign.
"Let me make it real clear, I'm not anti-immigrant. I love immigrants," said the former Massachusetts governor, adding that he would continue to reach out to voters "in any language I can to have them vote for me."
But Romney said it wasn't "fair" to allow illegal immigrants to work toward citizenship. Like all the other contenders, except McCain and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Romney opposes the immigration plan - which appears to be unpopular with Republican primary voters.
The third Republican debate of the campaign also showcased the candidates' support for U.S. policy in Iraq, though Tancredo said American forces should pull out if the current strategy fails, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said that "it was a mistake to go, so it's a mistake to stay."
There was scant praise for Bush and at least two sharp jabs. Former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, who served in Bush's Cabinet, was asked how he would use Bush if he became president.
"I certainly would not send him to the United Nations," said the former health secretary and Wisconsin governor.
Tancredo, recalling that Bush aide Karl Rove once told him never to darken the door of the White House, said he would tell Bush the same thing.
Rep. Duncan Hunter of California said he would authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons "if there was no other way" to keep Iran from using centrifuges to build its own nuclear bomb. Other candidates declined to go that far but said they would not rule out any options.
Hunter also lashed out at the front-runners, attacking Giuliani's support for gun control, Romney's "socialist" health-coverage plan in Massachusetts, and McCain's alliance with Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on immigration.
At least two candidates, Tancredo and Brownback, said they would pardon I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, who received a stiff sentence yesterday from a federal judge. Romney and Giuliani expressed strong sympathy with the idea but stopped short of endorsing it.
The debate was held on the same hockey-rink stage at St. Anselm College that hosted eight Democratic candidates Sunday evening.
National polling shows the country closely divided on the new immigration deal, though a new Gallup/USA Today poll found that most Americans don't know enough about it to have an opinion. Republican voters have tended to be less supportive of the plan's provisions than Democrats.
Recent opinion surveys in New Hampshire have shown Giuliani, McCain and Romney swapping positions, with the former governor from next-door Massachusetts gaining in recent weeks. The state's primary, the nation's first, is more than seven months away.
Fred Thompson, who recently formed a presidential fund-raising committee, did not attend. Instead, the former Tennessee senator appeared as a post-debate commentator on Fox News Channel.
A new Pew Research Center poll, released yesterday, found that Thompson has considerable appeal to Republican voters, especially to men and conservatives. The national survey found that 37 percent of Republicans said there was a good chance they could support Thompson.
The poll, completed Sunday, found that Republican voters are far more likely than Democrats to consider immigration and terrorism as important voting issues.