ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney scornfully debated immigration Wednesday in a testy personal exchange in which Giuliani accused Romney of employing illegal immigrants at his home and running a "sanctuary mansion."
Giuliani criticized Romney after the former Massachusetts governor claimed Giuliani had retained New York's status as a sanctuary city while he was mayor.
Romney said it would "not be American" to check the papers of workers employed by a contractor simply because they have a "funny accent." He had landscapers at his Belmont, Mass., home who turned out were in the country illegally.
Giuliani shot back, calling Romney's attitude "holier than thou."
"Mitt usually criticizes people when he usually has the far worse record," Giuliani said.
The exchange came at the start of an innovative CNN-YouTube debate that forced the candidates to confront immigration immediately, signaling the volatility of the issue among Republican voters.
The audience, however, booed Giuliani as he tried to persist in his criticism of Romney.
At the outset, the questions submitted online dominated the immigration issue and swept over the remainder of the Republican field.
Fred Thompson took the opportunity to distinguish himself from both Romney and Giuliani, arguing that Romney had supported President Bush's plan to provide a path to citizenship for some immigrants in the United States illegally now. He took Giuliani to task for attacking Romney's employment of illegal immigrants.
"I think we've all had people who we've hired who in retrospect was a bad decision," he said.
Sen. John McCain, for whom the immigration issue has proved particularly vexing, defended his support for an unsuccessful overhaul of immigration laws that included a temporary worker program and a path to citizenship.
"We must recognize these are God's children as well," McCain said. "They need our love and compassion, and I want to ensure that I will enforce the borders first. But we won't demagogue it."
Mike Huckabee, who has also come under GOP criticism for some of his immigration policies while governor of Arkansas, defended benefits he supported for children of illegal immigrants, including allowing children to be eligible to apply for college scholarships.
"Are we going to say kids who are here illegally are going to get a special deal?" Romney asked.
Huckabee objected, saying the benefit was based on merit. "We are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did," he said.
Thompson, in what amounted to one of the first video attacks of the campaign, questioned the conservative credentials of two of his rivals in a YouTube clip. The video challenged Romney on abortion and Huckabee on taxes.
"I wanted to give my buddies here a little extra air time," Thompson said to laughter as he defended the video.
For Thompson, Romney and Huckabee are his biggest obstacles toward establishing himself as the candidate of conservatives.
"I was wrong, I was effectively pro-choice," said Romney, who has said he changed his stance in 2004 during debates on stem cell research. "On abortion, I was wrong."
"If people are looking for somebody in this country who has never made a mistake ... then they ought to find somebody else," he said.