In a sharp debate among the eight Republican candidates for president Wednesday — with rivals sparring over illegal immigration, taxes...

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — In a sharp debate among the eight Republican candidates for president Wednesday — with rivals sparring over illegal immigration, taxes, abortion, guns and torture — the stakes of the looming January caucuses and primaries played out in dramatic color on the Americans’ TV screens.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee came under attack for the first time, a sure sign of how his recent rise in polls has helped turn the race into a free-for-all five weeks before voting starts.

Huckabee was questioned about his willingness to raise taxes as governor and his support of college scholarships for meritorious children of illegal immigrants — two positions that could hurt him among conservatives and perhaps slow the gains he’s made in recent weeks.

“You know, when you get attacked, it’s not always bad,” Huckabee said to laughs from the Republican audience. “It’s like my old pastor used to tell me: ‘When they’re kicking you in the rear, it’s just proving you’re still out front.’ “

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Just hours before the first Republican debate in seven weeks started, a new poll in Iowa — whose Jan. 3 caucuses kick off presidential voting — showed Huckabee pulling ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the first time, 28 percent to 25 percent. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the national front-runner, was a distant third in Iowa at 12 percent, and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson pulled 11 percent.

The poll had a small sample, and Huckabee’s edge might disappear inside the 3.5 percent plus-or-minus margin of error. But his showing underscored the dynamic that fed the two-hour debate: that any one of five men now appear credible candidates to win the Republican nomination — Giuliani, Huckabee, Romney, Thompson or Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Each delivered standout moments at the debate, sponsored by CNN and the Internet-video phenomenon YouTube and spun around a format of freewheeling queries from viewers who had offered about 5,000 video questions — including one from a man shown cocking a gun as he asked candidates what sort of guns they own.

The candidates traded jabs over some of the campaign’s hot issues, including immigration.

Giuliani and Romney picked up exactly where they left off last weekend on the campaign trail, accusing each other of being soft on illegal immigrants.

Romney accused Giuliani of turning New York into a sanctuary for illegal immigrants. Giuliani in turn accused Romney of having a “sanctuary mansion” by allowing a firm with illegal immigrant employees to do work there.

Huckabee was pressed on his support for scholarships for children of illegal immigrants. He said he’d favored a bill, which didn’t pass the Arkansas Legislature, that would have allowed college scholarships for children who attended school in the state since they were 5 years old, maintained an A average and were applying for citizenship. “They had to earn it,” Huckabee said.

Romney ripped him, likening him to Massachusetts liberals.

“That’s not your money; it’s the taxpayers’ money,” Romney said.

Huckabee’s counter: “In all due respect, we’re a better country than to punish children for what their parents did.”

When pressed on “what would Jesus do” about the death penalty, the former Southern Baptist preacher said enforcing the death penalty was his toughest decision as a governor, but he believed it sometimes was necessary for heinous crimes.

Thompson went after two rivals simultaneously, catching the audience and candidates by surprise when CNN unveiled his new attack-ad video to rip rivals, while other candidates displayed short videos only to promote themselves.

Thompson’s video showed Romney supporting abortion rights in 1994 and Huckabee as governor saying that he’d accept some tax increases.

Debate moderator Anderson Cooper looked startled: “What’s up with that?” he asked Thompson.

“I wanna give my buddies here a little extra air time,” a grinning Thompson replied.

Cooper said the video deserved a response.

Romney apologized for his former pro-abortion stand.

“I don’t know how many times I could tell it: I was wrong, all right?” Romney said. “I was effectively pro-choice when I ran for office. … I was wrong, and I changed my mind. I’m proud to be pro-life, and I’m not going to be apologizing to people for becoming pro-life.”

“I cut taxes 90 times,” Huckabee said. “The sales tax was one penny higher.”

Candidates Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul also participated.

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