Republican presidential hopefuls hammered Democrats over Iraq on Tuesday and denied the United States had been wrong to go to war, in a hawkish start to their third presidential debate.
The encounter in the key, early voting state of New Hampshire was the latest showdown in the gruelling 2008 race for the White House, ahead of nominating primary and caucus elections for both parties early next year.
The top candidates immediately hit out at Democratic foes who debated on the same stage in an ice hockey arena in the northeastern state two days earlier.
"The Democrats are in denial," said former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, in the event carried live on CNN, adding that the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was "absolutely the right thing to do."
"It's unthinkable to leave Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq and be able to fight the war on terror."
Senator John McCain, took direct aim at Democratic front-runner Senator Hillary Clinton, who like other top Democrats has vowed to end the war if she is elected president.
"When Senator Clinton says this is Mr. Bush's war, that this is President Bush's war -- when President Clinton was in power, I didn't say that Bosnia, our intervention there was President Clinton's war."
"When we intervened in Kosovo, I didn't say it was President Clinton's war.
"What Senator Clinton doesn't understand (is) that presidents don't lose wars. Political parties don't lose wars."
Another top Republican, former Massachussetts governor Mitt Romney, condemned Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid for his comment last month that "the war in Iraq is lost."
"Harry Reid was wrong. We did not lose the war in Iraq. And that's not the sort of thing you say when you have men and women in harm's way," Romney said.
"We did, however, not do a great job after we knocked down Saddam Hussein and won the war to take him down and his military."
Most Republican candidates have argued that President George W Bush's strategy of surging more troops into Iraq should be given more time to succeed, with commanders due to report to Congress on progress in September.
A new poll out on Tuesday however revealed eroding support among Americans over the war. Just 39 percent of those surveyed in the Washington Post-ABC News poll said they approved of Congress' work, down five points from April when the new Democratic majority had been in place for 100 days.
One key absentee from Tuesday night's debate was screen star and future presidential candidate, Fred Thompson.
Thompson, the six-foot-six (1.98-metre) star of television show "Law & Order" has signalled he is ready to officially leap into the race within weeks.
The ex-Tennessee senator is likely to appeal to core conservatives on issues like terrorism, gun control and social issues.
Long-shot candidates desperate to break into the top pack were also battling for the spotlight. They are: former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, congressman Duncan Hunter, congressman Ron Paul, former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore, Senator Sam Brownback, congressman Tom Tancredo, and former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson.
While national polls have Giuliani in the lead, his advantage has eroded in recent weeks, analysts said, because of his comparatively liberal positions on abortion and social issues.
Romney meanwhile has shot into the lead in some polls in Iowa, home of the first nominating caucus next January, and McCain has been running strongly in another key early voting state, New Hampshire.
Candidates were also likely to clash on topics like social issues and abortion, which are vitally important to grass-roots Republicans, while a row was also brewing over immigration.