DES MOINES — Rifts among Republican presidential candidates surfaced Saturday as they appeared back-to-back on the same stage at a dinner of Iowa activists who hold outsized sway in the race for the White House.
Drawing pointed contrasts on abortion, immigration and other matters, nine candidates vied for the loyalty of more than 1,000 Republicans whom they hope to rally behind them for the party's opening contest of the 2008 nomination fight.
Front-runners Rudolph W. Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney were the targets of repeated jabs by lesser-known rivals who touted their conservative credentials.
"I can assure you, ladies and gentlemen, Rudy McRomney is not a conservative, and he knows he's not a conservative," former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore said, blending the candidates' names.
Keeping with the dinner's theme of unity, the top contenders were less direct, but they nonetheless found ways to highlight their differences.
McCain told the crowd that he had supported "the rights of the unborn" for 24 years "without changing, without wavering" -- an apparent shot at Romney and Giuliani. Romney supported abortion rights when he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, but he describes himself now as "pro-life." Giuliani is the only top Republican in the race who supports abortion rights.
"What makes America strong," Romney told the crowd, "is the American people -- hard-working, risk-taking, opportunity-seeking, God-loving, family-oriented, patriotic American people who respect the sanctity of human life."
Social conservatives are a potent force in Iowa's Republican caucuses. The absence of a leading contender with views in sync with theirs has heightened the competitiveness for candidates seeking their support.
Nationwide, only 35% of Republicans are satisfied with the choices for the nomination, according to a CBS News poll released Friday.
On the fiscal side, the candidates at the dinner were largely united in calling for restraint on taxes and spending.
Notably spare in about three hours of speeches were remarks on the Iraq war, though McCain spoke at length about his support for the war.
"There are some signs of success," said the Arizona senator. "Is it long and hard and tough? Yes." His similar comments on a recent trip to a Baghdad market, when he was accompanied by armed soldiers, produced a storm of bad publicity.
McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, pounded Democrats in Congress for trying to force President Bush to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.
"Presidents don't lose wars," he said. "Political parties don't lose wars. Nations lose wars."
Giuliani also went after Democrats for trying to force a troop withdrawal. He said he could not recall any nation in history that "printed out a schedule" to retreat from battle. "Does that make any sense?" he asked.
The former New York mayor accused Democrats of not grasping the war's importance in preventing terrorist strikes in the United States.
"They want to go back on defense against terrorism," said Giuliani, who has emphasized his leadership in New York after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Giuliani, McCain and Romney were warmly applauded, but several other candidates stirred up heartier cheers with remarks on immigration and abortion.
Among the best-received was Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, whose combative rhetoric on illegal immigration has defined his campaign. Without naming the three leading rivals, he hammered them for supporting moves to provide a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
However they couch their immigration plans, he said, "I assure you their answer is amnesty. It's always amnesty."
"This is our country," he concluded, drawing a standing ovation. "Take it back."
Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who entered the convention hall with supporters chanting "pro-life is whole life," won cheers for his call to protect children from vulgar entertainment in the media. "We need a culture that does not corrode and does not corrupt," he said.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee noted his support for gun rights and his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
Huckabee also brought comedian Paul Shanklin on stage. Shanklin, imitating President Clinton, poked fun at Romney for recent comments he made about hunting.
Huckabee later entertained the crowd by playing electric bass with his rock band, Capitol Offense.
The audience at the state party's annual Abraham Lincoln dinner was a crucial one.
Many of the Republicans who paid $75 to attend will work as grass-roots organizers for candidates in the Iowa caucuses that kick off the race for the presidential nomination in January. Although many have already committed to candidates, hundreds were still scouting.
Among them was Tim Trepa, 42, a trucking supervisor from Bettendorf, Iowa.
"I'm just trying to figure out who to support," he said.