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Republican Candidates Debate in New Hampshire

President Bush was the biggest issue of the night as the 10 Republicans vying to replace him crowded a Manchester, N.H., stage for a two-hour televised debate that saw few heated moments among the participants.

The candidates chose their words carefully but sought to distance themselves from the Bush administration and its handling of the war on terror.

Specifically, the Iraq war dominated early in the Tuesday evening debate. Candidates were asked whether they believed invading Iraq was a mistake.

"We did the right thing based on what we knew at that time," said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. "I think we made mistakes following the conduct or the collapse of Saddam's government."

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was more direct.

"It's unthinkable that you would leave Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq and be able to fight the war on terror," Giuliani said.

"The problem is that we see Iraq in a vacuum," he said. "Iraq is part of the overall terrorist war against the United States."

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson criticized Bush's diplomatic skills, while Sen. John McCain of Arizona criticized the administration for its handling of the Iraq war, though he defended the immigration reform compromise.

McCain acknowledged that he had not read the government's full intelligence report on Iraq before voting to authorize the war.

McCain has backed the president's troop surge. He was asked what should be done if the top ground commander, Gen. David Petraeus, says the surge isn't working.

"You would have to — you withdraw to the borders and watch genocide take place inside Baghdad? You watch the destabilization of Jordan? You see further jeopardy of Israel because of the threats of Hezbollah and Iranian hegemony in the region? All of the options I could run through with you. My friend, none of them are good. That's why we must succeed and give it a chance to succeed," he said.

After questions shifted from the Iraq war and terrorism to immigration, candidates still found themselves at odds with the president, who supports the immigration bill that many other Republicans oppose.

U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado has been crusading against an immigration bill that would give undocumented workers a path to citizenship. He was applauded when he said the survival of the nation is at stake.

"How long will it take us ... to catch up with the millions of people who have come here, both legally and illegally, and assimilate them? I'll tell you this: It'll take this long — until we no longer have to press 1 for English and 2 for any other language," he said.

It was a sentiment echoed by Romney, who said it's "not fair to say those people get put ahead in the line of all the people who've been waiting legally to come to this country."

Immigration has been a sensitive issue for McCain. A sponsor of the bill, he said the compromise is better than letting 12 million people walk around America illegally.

For Giuliani, trying to square his support for abortion rights with the party's solid base of Christian conservatives created an opportunity for unexpected humor, as lightning flashed just as he began talking about the subject.

"Look, for someone who went to parochial schools all his life, this is a very frightening thing that's happening right now," he said.

Giuliani said he simply thinks women should have a choice: "I consult my religion, I consult my reading of the Constitution, I consult my views of what I think are important in a pluralistic society, and the reality is that we have to respect the fact that there are people that are equally as religious, equally as moral that make a different decision about this. And should government put them in jail?"

Then, the questions turned back to Bush. How might candidates use his services as an ex-president?

Thompson offered perhaps the most memorable quip of the evening, saying he "certainly would not send him to the United Nations."

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David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.