After months of relatively gentle debate, the 10 Republicans running for president are getting more aggressive with each other in the 2008 campaign for the White House. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
In the latest debate held in South Carolina and televised by the Fox News Channel, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani may have helped himself with a statement on the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S.
Giuliani responded to a comment from Texas Congressman Ron Paul about the roots of the 9/11 attacks. Paul is the only Republican candidate who opposes the war in Iraq.
PAUL: "They attack us because we have been over there. We have been bombing Iraq for 10 years. We have been in the Middle East. I think [former President Ronald] Reagan was right. We do not understand the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics."
GIULIANI: "That is an extraordinary statement. As someone who lived through the attack of September 11th, [to say that] we invited the attack, because we were attacking Iraq, I do not think I have ever heard that before. And I have heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11th."
There were other examples of a more aggressive tone among the Republican contenders. Arizona Senator John McCain was asked about his opposition to torture in the questioning of terrorism suspects and his vow to close the terrorist detention camp at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"The use of torture, as much as we would gain from torture, we would lose in world opinion," said Senator McCain. "We do not torture people."
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney also opposed the use of torture to obtain information about an impending terrorist attack. But Romney said he would favor keeping the Guantanamo Bay prison open and doubling the number of terrorist suspects held there.
Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore said some of the frontrunners in the Republican field are trying to portray themselves as more conservative than they actually are.
Gilmore cited Giuliani's support for abortion rights and the fact that Romney was once a supporter of abortion, but now opposes it. Gilmore also noted that McCain initially opposed President Bush's tax cut program.
Gilmore also repeated concerns about Iran that several of the Republican contenders expressed in their earlier debate in California.
"There is no choice at this point other than to join up with people across the world in order to put on serious, mandatory sanctions against Iran," he said.
Another of the lesser known Republican contenders, Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, accused Giuliani, McCain and Romney of being weak on the issue of stopping illegal immigration into the U.S.
University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato said the second Republican debate demonstrated a new willingness on the part of several candidates to challenge each other.
"They have not been attacking one another until tonight, and this time they decided to unsheathe the short knives," he said. "They went after each other, at least a bit and they drew some blood. I think McCain was bleeding a bit, I think Romney was bleeding a bit. Some of the minor candidates [as well], but they do not matter."
Public-opinion polls show Giuliani in the lead for the Republican nomination, followed by McCain and Romney, with the seven other active candidates trailing far behind.
But the polls also show support for two Republicans who are considering a White House run, but who have not declared their candidacies, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
Craig Crawford of Congressional Quarterly magazine says none of the Republican candidates has yet captured the imagination of the party's social conservative wing, a crucial constituency in the nominating process.
"I think one of the biggest reasons the Republican race is wide open is that no one has a claim on the conservative chair, the social conservative chair in the Republican Party," he explained.
Thompson is expected to decide whether to enter the race in the next few weeks while Gingrich says he will make a decision by September.