DURHAM, N.H. -- Major Republican presidential candidates rallied behind continuing President Bush's troop buildup in Iraq during a campaign debate last night that included new sparring over their records on controlling illegal immigration.
The newest entrant into the party's presidential contest, actor-politician Fred Thompson, a former senator from Tennessee, skipped the debate at the University of New Hampshire, avoiding a direct engagement with the other candidates but drawing ridicule from several rivals.
"Maybe we're up past his bedtime," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.
"I think he's done a pretty good job of playing my part on Law and Order. I personally prefer the real thing," said former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former U.S. attorney for the city, referring to Thompson's television role as a New York City district attorney.
The debate, the fifth for Republicans in this campaign, featured several of the candidates competing to outdo each other with expressions of support for maintaining the troop buildup.
After former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney described Bush's Iraq strategy as "apparently" succeeding, McCain pointedly chided him for insufficient certainty.
"Not 'apparently,' it's working," McCain said.
"What we did in Iraq, we essentially broke it," Huckabee said, adding, "We bought it, because we broke it. We have a responsibility to the honor of this country."
Paul responded that in invading Iraq "we dug a hole for ourselves and we dug a hole for the Republican Party."
Candidates engaged, sometimes passionately, on the question of the Iraq war and the country's fight against terrorism.
Romney was the target of several questions from panelists and opponents about his position on the war and on troop withdrawal, but the most pointed commentary came from the father of a U.S. serviceman.
Addressing the debate from a remote site, the man, appearing to choke back tears as he spoke, said he was offended recently when Romney said publicly that his sons were doing their duty to the country by working on his campaign.
"There is no comparison, of course," Romney answered. "People who are willing to put their lives on the line ... are in a league of their own."
Romney repeatedly asserted that the troop increase "appears" to be working, while also emphasizing the value of a support role for U.S. troops in the region.
If the buildup is working, Romney said, the country is "going to be able to bring back our troop levels and play more of a support role over time."
Romney said he thinks it's wise to wait for Gen. David Petraeus to deliver his report to Congress next week and to listen to what military leaders think about the ground strategy in Iraq.
But other candidates voiced support for the success of military personnel in Iraq, especially since the buildup began.
"The surge is working," McCain said. "Not apparently, it's working. ... I want our troops home with honor. Otherwise, we will face catastrophe and genocide in the region."
Giuliani also questioned the wisdom of talking openly about troop withdrawal while the country is at war.
"When has a nation ever won a war when the constant discussion was, 'What kind of timetable are we going to set for our retreat?'" Giuliani said.
While Democrats are talking about change, the Republican candidates spent more time talking about experience as a qualification for office.
McCain said Giuliani "did a great job as mayor of New York and led the country and inspired us after the tragedy of 9/11," but he touted his own foreign policy credentials and suggested that they are more relevant than the government management experience of his opponents.
Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons write for the Chicago Tribune.