WASHINGTON—In an animated, fast-paced debate marked by personal attacks between the candidates, Republican presidential hopefuls Wednesday night sparred over illegal immigration, torture, gun control, abortion -- and even whether the Bible should be taken literally.
The unconventional debate sponsored by CNN and YouTube featured often raw and emotional questions from the public, in the form of 33 videos. Questions came from a gay general from Northern California, a black father and son from Atlanta worried about crime, and a young white Texan asking the candidates for their views on flying the Confederate flag.
Mitt Romney, who has been a leader in the two states that loom largest in the early voting -- Iowa and New Hampshire.
FOR THE RECORD:
Republican debate: An article in Thursday's Section A on the Republican presidential debate said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had suggested that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was heartless for opposing college scholarships for immigrants. The exchange was over scholarships for illegal immigrants.
Romney was attacked from all sides, on multiple issues. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani accused him of employing illegal immigrants, while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee suggested that he was heartless for opposing college scholarships for immigrants. Sen. John McCain of Arizona faulted Romney for refusing to concede that an interrogation practice called waterboarding amounts to torture. And former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee -- via a campaign video -- chided the former governor for changing his position on abortion.
The combative tone, played out before an audience in St. Petersburg, Fla., was set quickly as Romney and Giuliani bickered over one of the most emotional issues in the 2008 presidential race: illegal immigration.
After Romney accused his rival of presiding over a city that protected illegal immigrants, Giuliani countered that Romney hired illegal immigrants to work at his home.
"At his own home, illegal immigrants were being employed -- not being turned in to anybody or by anyone," Giuliani said.
Romney had hired a landscaping firm to work on his 2 1/2 -acre property in Belmont, Mass. The company reportedly used undocumented immigrants on the job.
Romney said he was not personally responsible. He called it "really kind of offensive" to suggest that if a homeowner hires a contractor and "if you hear someone with a funny accent, you as a homeowner are supposed to go out there and say, 'I want to see your papers'?"
The moderator, CNN's Anderson Cooper, broke with the video format at one point to question Giuliani about a report put out earlier in the day by online political news outlet Politico.
The article said that when he was mayor, Giuliani traveled to the Hamptons with a security detail at city expense. At the time, he was married but involved with another woman, Judith Nathan, who had a home in Southampton. (Giuliani has since divorced his wife and married Nathan.) Politico also reported that Giuliani's administration billed tens of thousands of dollars in travel expenses to obscure city agencies.
In response to Cooper's query, Giuliani said that there were threats on his life and that he was given round-the-clock protection.
"I had nothing to do with the handling of their records," the former mayor said. "They were handled, as far as I know, perfectly appropriately."
A tough moment for Romney came in an exchange with McCain over what constitutes torture. McCain was imprisoned and beaten by his captors during the Vietnam War.
Romney was asked about an interrogation technique called waterboarding, which simulates drowning. Since 2002, numerous media reports have said that the Bush administration approved "enhanced" interrogation techniques, including waterboarding.
Romney declined to answer whether waterboarding amounted to torture, saying it was not "wise" for a presidential candidate to discuss specific techniques.
At that, McCain said: "Well, governor. I'm astonished that you haven't found out what waterboarding is."