Republican presidential rivals Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney went head-to-head on the issue of immigration Wednesday during a CNN/YouTube debate in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The entire first half-hour of the debate was taken up by a battle over illegal immigration — the hottest of hot-button issues for the Republican base. Front-runner Giuliani accused Romney of employing illegal immigrants at his home and running a "sanctuary mansion." The testy personal exchange came after Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, said Giuliani had retained New York's status as a sanctuary city while he was mayor.
In response to a question, Giuliani denied that New York was a sanctuary city, prompting an attack from Romney, who has been leading in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Romney said that Giuliani believed "if you happen to be in this country in an undocumented status, and that means you're here illegally, then we welcome you here. We want you here. We'll protect you here."
"That's the wrong attitude," he said.
Giuliani shot back, calling Romney's attitude "holier than thou."
"Mitt usually criticizes people when he usually has the far worse record," he said, adding that as Massachusetts governor, Romney had overseen six "sanctuary cities."
"There was even a sanctuary mansion. At his own home, illegal immigrants were being employed," Giuliani said.
The fight between the two front-runners was music to the ears of Tom Tancredo, who has based his whole campaign on illegal immigration.
"For a guy who usually stands on the bookend here aside and just listens all the time, that's kind of frustrating, you know, in other debates," he said. "I have to tell you, so far, it's been wonderful."
With just five weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses and no clear front-runner, the Republican race is getting more intense and negative.
All the candidates were invited to submit YouTube-style videos of their own.
Fred Thompson simply recycled bits of old — and damning — video of two of his rivals: first, a pro-choice Mitt Romney; then a much heavier Mike Huckabee agreeing to raise taxes.
The moderator, CNN's Anderson Cooper, gave both Romney and Huckabee a chance to respond.
"I don't know how many times I can tell it. I was wrong," said Romney. "If people in this country are looking for someone who's never made a mistake on a policy issue and is not willing to admit they're ever wrong, why then they're going to have to find somebody else, because on abortion, I was wrong."
Huckabee, who is in a statistical dead-heat with Romney in Iowa, said he had "a great record on fiscal conservatism."
"One thing I've learned, you know, when you get attacked, it's not always bad," he said. "It's like my old pastor used to tell me, when they're kicking you in the rear, it's just proving you're still out front."
The rise of Huckabee, who is an ordained Baptist minister, has been fueled by support from Christian conservatives and that's why he got this question from Tyler Overman of Memphis, Tenn.:
"I have a quick question for those of you who would call yourselves Christian conservatives. The death penalty, what would Jesus do?" Overman asked via YouTube video.
Huckabee acknowledged that many people wonder how a candidate can be pro-life and pro-death penalty. He said there was a difference between a person who has been judged guilty and an innocent, unborn baby. But the moderator wasn't satisfied with that answer.
"The question was, from the viewer was: 'What would Jesus do? Would Jesus support the death penalty?'"
"Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office, Anderson. That's what Jesus would do," Huckabee responded to applause.
One of the evening's most emotional exchanges came in response to a question from Andrew Jones, a college student from Seattle.
"Recently, Sen. McCain has come out strongly against using waterboarding as an instrument of interrogation," Jones said.
"My question for the rest of you is, considering that Mr. McCain is the only one with any firsthand knowledge on the subject, how can those of you sharing the stage with him disagree with his position?" he said.
"I oppose torture," Romney said. "I would not be in favor of torture in any way, shape or form."
Prompted by the moderator as to whether waterboarding was torture, Romney said "as a presidential candidate, I don't think it's wise for us to describe specifically which measures we would and would not use."
McCain's response was passionate: "Well, governor, I'm astonished that you haven't found out what waterboarding is."
"I know what waterboarding is, Senator," Romney said.
"Then I am astonished that you would think such a torture would be inflicted on anyone in our — who we held captive and anyone could believe that that's not torture. It's in violation of the Geneva Convention," McCain said.
With additional reporting from The Associated Press