DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Republican presidential contenders sparred over abortion on Sunday while generally agreeing the United States must remain in Iraq to help win the war on terror.
"Just come home," dissented Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the lone advocate of a quick troop withdrawal on a presidential campaign debate stage. He said there had never been a good reason to go to war in the first place.
"Has he forgotten about 9/11?" interjected former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
But it was Romney forced to answer on the issue of abortion, when Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback defended automated phone calls his campaign has made highlighting his rival's one-time support for pro-choice policies.
"It's truthful," Brownback said. "I am pro-life. I think this is a core issue for our party."
Romney called it "desperate, maybe negative," adding moments later, "I get tired of people that are holier than thou because they've been pro-life longer than I have."
The debate unfolded on a Drake University stage, hosted and carried live by ABC, five months before Iowa caucus-goers begin winnowing the field of White House contenders.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Romney, the most prominent contenders, agreed the United States must remain in Iraq. So, too, Brownback, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and Reps. Tom Tancredo of Colorado and Duncan Hunter of California.
"I firmly believe that the challenge for the 21st century is a challenge against radical extremism," McCain said. He forecast a battle in the Senate in September in which anti-war critics will try to cut off funds.
"We will win that debate because the American people understand the consequences of failure," he added.
Giuliani saved his sharpest jabs for Democrats. "In four debates, not a single Democrat said the word, 'Islamic terrorists.' Now that is taking political correctness to extreme," he said.
Romney, too, was eager to criticize Democrats. His chosen target was Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who said recently he would be willing to meet with the leaders of Cuba, North Korea and Iran in his first year in office, and declared in a speech he would order military action to capture terrorists in Pakistan if that nation's president did not.
"I mean, in one week he went from saying he's going to sit down, you know, for tea, with our enemies, but then he's going to bomb our allies," said Romney. "I mean, he's gone from Jane Fonda to Dr. Strangelove in one week."
Obama's campaign spokesman responded promptly. "Before he makes more false accusations, Mitt Romney should tell us why he believes we should keep 160,000 American troops in the middle of someone else's civil war but not take out Osama bin Laden if we had him in our sights," said Bill Burton.
Giuliani provided a rare moment of laughter, dodging a question about the defining mistake of his life with a quip.
"Your father is a priest," the former mayor said to moderator George Stephanopoulos. "I'm going to explain it to your father, not to you, OK?
Polls consistently show the war in Iraq to be the issue uppermost in the minds of the voters. But abortion is a constant concern in Republican presidential contests, particularly in Iowa, where caucuses attract the most fervent party activists.
Stephanopoulos opened the debate by asking Romney about Brownback's automated phone calls. Moments later, he asked the former Massachusetts governor about having said last spring that Giuliani was "pro-choice and pro-gay marriage and anti-gun, and that's a tough combination in a Republican primary."
Romney deflected the question, saying, "I'd rather him speak to his own positions rather than me speak for him."
Giuliani said he supports the Second Amendment, which provides for the right to bear arms, and believes marriage should be between a man and a woman.
"And I believe the best way we can have common ground in this debate that you're hearing is if we put our emphasis on reducing abortions and increasing the number of adoptions, which is something that I did as mayor of New York City."