COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) _ The leading Republican presidential defended their conservative credentials Tuesday night on abortion, gun control and tax cuts.
``I ultimately do believe in a woman's right of choice but I think there are ways we can look for ways to reduce abortions,'' former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said in the Republicans' second campaign debate.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said he had signed legislation into law banning assault weapons but added that he is a supporter of the rights of gun owners under the Constitution's Second Amendment.
Arizona Sen. John McCain of Arizona said he would make sure that President Bush's tax cuts were made permanent, even though he voted against them when they were passed in 2001.
He said he did so because they were not accompanied by spending cuts.
All three sought to stand their ground _ and protect their standing in the presidential race _ in a 90-minute debate at the University of South Carolina.
In a break from the campaign's first debate, some of the contenders who lag in the polls jabbed sharply at the front-runners.
Asked whether he believes McCain, Romney and Giuliani were soft on immigration, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado said, ``I do.''
That wasn't all, he added quickly, saying his rivals had undergone recent conversions on abortion and other issues.
``I trust those conversions when they happen on the road to Damascus and not on the road to Des Moines,'' he said, contrasting the biblical with the political.
Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore attacked, as well, saying that ``some of the people on this stage were very liberal in characterizing themselves as conservatives, particularly on the issues of abortion and taxes and health care.''
He singled out Giuliani for his position on abortion and said another rival, Mike Huckabee, had raised taxes while serving as governor of Arkansas.
Huckabee responded that the state raised taxes in response to a court order and added that he had cut taxes repeatedly.
On defense for much of the evening, Giuliani switched to the attack nearly an hour into the debate, challenging Rep. Ron Paul's suggestion that the U.S. bombing of Iraq had contributed to the terrorist attacks of 2001.
As someone who lived through 9/11, the man who was New York mayor at the time, Giuliani said sternly, ``I don't think I've ever heard that before, and I have heard some pretty absurb explanations.''
His rebuke to Paul drew some of the loudest applause of the night from the partisan audience at the University of South Carolina campus.