ST PETERSBURG, United States (AFP) — Republican White House hopefuls waged ferocious personal battles over immigration and torture Wednesday as tempers flared in a debate just 36 days before first party nominating contests.
Top candidates Rudolph Giuliani and Mitt Romney clashed openly, while darkhorse candidate Mike Huckabee appeared to further boost his surging campaign as a new poll showed him ahead in the leadoff voting state of Iowa.
The angry exchanges were the latest sign that the Republican race is wide open and lacks a clear front-runner as the Iowa caucuses loom on January 3.
In a bitter opening exchange, former New York mayor Giuliani bluntly accused Romney of turning his official residence when he was governor of Massachusetts into a "sanctuary mansion" for undocumented workers.
"You did have illegal immigrants working at your mansion, didn't you?" Giuliani asked during a pioneering debate carried by CNN using questions uploaded to video sharing site YouTube by viewers.
Romney branded Giuliani's remarks "offensive" and accused him of wanting to force homeowners to demand official papers from casual workers with a "funny accent."
Senator John McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war took on Romney after he declined to say whether the waterboarding interrogation technique was torture.
"If we're going to get the high ground in this world and we're going to be the America that we have cherished and loved for more than 200 years, we're not going to torture people," said McCain, trying to relaunch a lagging campaign.
"We're not going to do what (late ex-Cambodian leader) Pol Pot did. We're not going to do what's being done to Burmese monks as we speak."
Former Arkansas governor Huckabee went into the debate on a roll, basking in a new opinion poll which found him overhauling Romney in Iowa.
He also rebuked Romney: "We are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did," he said, defending the idea of allowing the offspring of illegal immigrants to get state education benefits.
He aimed a humorous swipe aside at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton when asked whether the United States should expand its manned space program.
"I don't know ... but I'll tell you what, if we do, I've got a few suggestions, and maybe Hillary could be on the first rocket to Mars."
And when the ordained Baptist minister was asked whether Jesus would have approved of the death penalty, he quipped: "Jesus was too smart to ever run for public office."
Unlike other campaign debates, there was little discussion on Iraq, amid signs of US military progress in a war most Republicans support, and the US nuclear showdown with Iran.
Giuliani meanwhile denied allegations he had obscured thousands of dollars in taxpayer costs for his security detail at a time when he was having an extramarital affair.
"It's not true," said the former New York mayor, when asked about the report by the Politico newspaper and website, saying he had no say in how the billing was calculated.
The report renewed questions about Giuliani's ethics and judgement as New York mayor, which some analysts believe could damage his campaign.
Huckabee led the new Rasmussen Reports poll in Iowa with 28 percent of a sample of likely Republican caucus goers, with Romney second on 25 percent. Giuliani was third with 12 percent, and former actor and Senator Fred Thompson was the only other candidate in double figures on 11 percent.
Huckabee said rising political attacks on him from his rivals proved his surge was real.
"As my old pastor used to say, 'when they are kicking you in the rear, it just proves you are still out front,'" he said.
Despite his surge in Iowa, Huckabee remains a long odds prospect in other key states and nationwide.
Giuliani is seen as national front-runner in the Republican race, but faces an uphill task in trying to win over conservatives skeptical of his liberal social record.
Romney is strong in Iowa, and New Hampshire, which holds primary elections on January 8.
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