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Under pressure from their rivals, the leading Republican presidential contenders defended their conservative credentials on abortion, gun control and tax cuts in a feisty debate Tuesday night.

“Republicans should be uniting” to defeat the Democrats, implored former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, rather than stressing their differences with one another.

Giuliani, pressed repeatedly on his support for abortion rights, wasn’t the only contender to field pointed questions.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney conceded he had signed legislation banning assault weapons but said, “Let’s get the record straight.” He said he is a supporter of the rights of gun owners under the Second Amendment.

Arizona Sen. John McCain of Arizona said he would make sure that President Bush’s tax cuts are made permanent, even though he said he had voted against them because they were not accompanied by spending cuts.

“If we don’t make them permanent then every business farm and family will have to adjust their budgets to what is in effect a tax increase,” he said.

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