GOP Candidates Hone Arguments Before Debate, Huckabee Surge Makes Him Easy Target

With 36 days until the leadoff Iowa caucuses, Republican candidates are crystallizing their arguments in an ever-tightening race where the attacks are flying from all sides.

Issues like illegal immigration, gun control, fiscal discipline, crime and abortion rights are taking center stage in the GOP arena, and will likely surface at a debate in St. Petersburg, Fla., Wednesday night.

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But in a competition much tighter than the Democratic contest, frontrunner Rudy Giuliani has kept busy fending off accusations on his record from multiple candidates. A new blemish surfaced Wednesday when published an article saying Giuliani billed obscure New York City agencies for tens of thousands of dollars in travel expenses at the time the former mayor was starting an extramarital affair in the Hamptons with Judith Nathan, who later became his third wife. FOX News confirmed the report.

Meanwhile, dark horse Mike Huckabee has seen his steady climb in the polls make him a lodestone for criticism.

The former Arkansas governor’s popularity is soaring in Iowa. The latest Rasmussen poll, taken Nov. 26-27 of 839 likely GOP caucus-goers, showed Huckabee leading with 28 percent in Iowa, followed by Mitt Romney with 25 percent, Giuliani with 12 percent and Fred Thompson with 11 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 3.5 percent.

The survey gave Huckabee an even bigger lead than a Strategic Vision poll of 600 likely caucus-goers from Nov. 23-25 showing him with 24 percent, behind Romney with 26 percent.

And on the debate grounds in Florida, an Insider Advantage poll taken Nov. 25-26 showed Huckabee in second place with 17 percent, behind Giuliani with 26 percent. A CNN poll of 300 likely Florida voters taken during the same period, though, showed Huckabee with just 9 percent, behind Giuliani with 38 percent. The poll gave Romney 17 percent and Arizona Sen. John McCain and Thompson each 11 percent.

Huckabee is still behind his competitors in national polls, but his steady rise has easily transformed the contest into a five-way race.

Huckabee, a Baptist pastor with broad appeal among Christian conservatives, attributed his success to prayer Wednesday while receiving the endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr.

“When people pray, things happen,” he said. “I’m not saying God wants me to be elected — the last time I checked (God) hadn’t registered in any of the states to vote. If He does register be sure to let me know, because I will ask for his vote."

But Huckabee's rivals have taken to pointing out chinks in his record as governor of Arkansas — from ethics complaints to tax increases to illegal immigration. He’s taken shots, for instance, from Romney for supporting tuition breaks for children of illegal immigrants while governor.

Huckabee on Wednesday contested the false conservative label, saying he leads the field in executive experience and that as governor he cut taxes 94 times. He said he raised taxes for needed infrastructure.

Asked how he’s preparing for the Florida debate, Huckabee, who famously lost 100 hundred pounds, said he’s going to prepare as he does for every debate by trying to keep his "head clear, and his spirit fresh,” in part by going on a four-mile run in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the battle between Romney and Giuliani has intensified, with each sparring over allegations they governed over so-called “sanctuary cities” where immigration laws were not strictly enforced. Taxes and other economic issues are also topics likely to be discussed by Romney and Giuliani Wednesday night.

Romney has also been taking heat from Giuliani for nominating a judge to the Massachusetts Superior Court who in July released a convicted killer now being held in the slaying of a Washington state couple. Romney has since called for Judge Kathe Tuttman to step down over her decision to release Daniel Tavares, Jr. Still, Giuliani has tried to link Romney’s past support of Tuttman to a soft record on crime.

Some top Massachusetts Republicans have aligned with Giuliani and are fanning out across the country to criticize Romney's record as governor. Former Gov. Paul Cellucci and former Treasurer Joe Malone, joined by other surrogates, announced "The Romney Reality" check during a news conference Wednesday outside the Statehouse where Romney served for four years.

Crime statistics show the number of murders in Massachusetts climbed from 142 in 2003, Romney's first year in office, to 186 in 2006, his last — an increase of 31 percent – but that overall violent crime dropped nearly 5 percent during Romney's tenure.

In response, Romney has turned the tables on Giuliani, bringing up Bernard Kerik, Giuliani’s former police commissioner in New York now under a 16-count indictment on corruption charges. Plus he’s repeatedly compared Giuliani with Hillary Clinton, saying he’s pro-choice and pro-gay rights, just like the Democratic frontrunner.

McCain, who just returned from a trip over the Thanksgiving holiday to Iraq, criticizes Giuliani for being inexperienced. But McCain himself often gets passes from rivals these days. Though he's a factor in New Hampshire, the level of support he's receiving in that state hasn't yet seeped over to other early voting states.

Thompson has jumped in the fray, too, as his popularity nationwide has steadily fallen since announcing his bid in September. Thompson scolded Giuliani for supporting gun control legislation and for leaning on his days as New York mayor while trumpeting second-amendment rights during campaign stops at gun store and a gun show in New Hampshire and South Carolina over the weekend.

Giuliani responded by saying Thompson, also an actor from “Law & Order,” has “no record.”

Texas Rep. Ron Paul and lesser-known candidates Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter also are participating in the Florida debate Wednesday night.

FOX News’ Serafin Gomez and The Associated Press contributed to this report.