Republican presidential rivals questioned the electability and conservative credentials of frontrunner Mitt Romney today during the final debate before the New Hampshire primary, saying he is the sort of professional politician he routinely criticizes.
The debate in Concord marked a departure from one held only 12 hours before in Manchester, where Romney’s opponents trained their fire on each other as they vied to become his principal challenger. Today, they targeted the former Massachusetts governor, who’s trying to establish a winning streak in the race.
“Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?” former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, referring to Romney’s assertion that he wasn’t a career politician.
The attacks this morning at a debate sponsored by NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Facebook and the New Hampshire Union Leader failed to rattle Romney. He countered by saying his competitors were part of Washington’s revolving door of serving in government and then cashing in as influence peddlers.
“I long for a day when instead of having people who go to Washington for 20 to 30 years, who get elected and then when they lose office, they stay there and make money as lobbyists,” Romney said. “I think it stinks.”
Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, and Jon Huntsman Jr. turned their attention to challenging Romney as polls show him with at least a 15-point lead in the race just two days before the Jan. 10 primary.
A victory would set Romney on a path to locking up the nomination as no candidate has won both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary and not captured the nomination.
Huntsman, faulted by Romney during the previous debate for his tour as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China, sought to make his government service into a virtue.
“I was criticized last night by Governor Romney for putting my country first,” he said. “He criticized me while he was out raising money.”
Huntsman later in the day continued his broadside against Romney on the issue of service. “Romney has a bumper sticker that says, ‘Proud of America,’” Huntsman said after an appearance in Hampstead. “How can you be proud of America if you criticize serving the country?”
At an early-afternoon event, an overflow crowd spilling out into the parking lot greeted the former Utah governor at the Bean Towne Coffee House and Cafe.
“This morning’s debate has more people interested in taking a look at him,” said Chip Moynihan, who came from nearby Hampton to attend.
Gingrich, for his part, was seeking to raise money off his attack on Romney.
“Help me stop Romney’s pious baloney today,” he said in a message posted on the social media network Twitter, next to a link to his website for campaign donations.
The former speaker encountered about two-dozen protesters outside a Mexican restaurant in Manchester where he was holding a Hispanic town hall meeting. Some of them carried signs with slogans such as “money out of politics” and chanted and banged on windows. Inside the building, voters peppered him with questions on immigration and campaign finance reform.
Gingrich began the morning debate questioning whether Romney could get elected in a race against Obama, calling the former Massachusetts governor insufficiently conservative to draw clear distinctions with the current occupant of the Oval Office.
“There’s a huge difference between a Reagan conservative and somebody who comes out of the Massachusetts culture with an essentially moderate record, who I think will have a very hard time in a debate” with Obama, Gingrich said.
Pressed on whether Romney was unelectable, Gingrich said, “I think he would have a very hard time” getting elected.
Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, also began the debate ready to attack Romney for his record, saying that the positions Romney took in his 1994 Senate race against Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy and his decision not to run for re-election as governor of Massachusetts showed he wasn’t a strong conservative.
In 1994, Santorum said, Romney “wouldn’t stand up for conservative principles, he ran from Ronald Reagan, and he said he was going to be to the left of Ted Kennedy on gay rights, on abortion, a whole host of other issues.”
‘Not Bail Out’
“We want someone who’s going to stand up and fight for the conservative principles, not bail out,” Santorum said.
Romney defended his record as governor and as a former private-equity executive at Bain Capital LLC, saying he’d grown increasingly conservative over the course of his career.
“The principles that I’ve learned in business and the principles as governor, frankly, it made me more conservative as time has gone on,” he said.
Gingrich sought to cast an unfavorable light on the business experience Romney cites as his central qualification for president, standing behind a web video financed by his allies that portrays Romney as greedy and documents the hardships experienced by workers after his firm bought their companies.
“Bain at times engaged in behavior where they looted a company,” Gingrich said.
Former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu said Romney has “broad shoulders” and can weather critics’ attacks. “I think Governor Romney is going to win New Hampshire,” Sununu told reporters after the debate.
Romney struck back in the afternoon against the claim that his work as a private-equity executive left him out of touch with the economic concerns of average Americans.
“I know what it’s like to worry whether you’re going to get fired,” he told voters at a packed theater in Rochester. “There were a couple of times I worried whether I was going to get a pink slip.” He also contrasted Bain’s early investment in the office supply store Staples with the portrayal of his work by his rivals who highlight job losses that followed some of Bain’s investments.
Romney described helping to stock shelves in the first Staples store. “It was private sector and we were pulling ourselves up in some respects by our boot straps,” he said.
Romney and Gingrich tangled during the morning debate over integrity. Asked whether he considered Romney a “liar,” the former Georgia congressman said, “Sure,” turning to Romney and appealing to him to “calmly and directly” admit that his own former aides and supporters had produced and financed brutal and sometimes false television ads against Gingrich in Iowa.
Romney retorted that by law he had no control over the ads, adding that most of what they said was accurate.
“Anything wrong, I’m opposed to, but you know, this ain’t beanbag,” Romney said. “We’re going to come into a campaign, and we’re going to describe the differences between us.”
The debate double-header came as polls showed a quickly changing race in New Hampshire, where voters tend to wait until late in the game to settle on a candidate. Following last night’s debate, Romney lost 4 percentage points, dropping to 35 percent in a Suffolk University/7News tracking poll conducted Jan. 6-7. The survey showed that while Romney still enjoys a 15-point lead, his advantage has fallen by 8 percentage points since Jan. 3.
Paul was in second place according to the poll, with 20 percent, while Huntsman drew 11 percent, Gingrich had 9 percent, Santorum had 8 percent and Texas Governor Rick Perry had 1 percent.
‘Big Government Person’
Attempting to gain ground on Romney, his rivals also took a few shots at each other. Santorum attacked Paul, who last night called him a “big government person” beholden to lobbyists, saying the Texas congressman is a marginalized figure whose proposal to withdraw U.S. troops from overseas military missions would be dangerous for the country.
“The problem with Congressman Paul is, all the things that Republicans like about him he can’t accomplish, and all the things they’re worried about he’ll do Day One,” said Santorum.
Perry, who is seeking to revive his prospects in the race, once again described himself as the only “outsider” in the contest.
“I look from here down to Rick Santorum, I see insiders,” he said. “The fact of the matter is Obama has thrown gasoline on the fire, but the bonfire was burning well before Obama got there.”
After the debate, Santorum left New Hampshire to spend the day in South Carolina, where his social-conservative message is popular, voicing confidence about his chances and his debate performance.
“We’re in a great position going to South Carolina with a lot of momentum,” Santorum told reporters in Concord. “I think we had a great debate today, showed the real inconsistencies and problems that Governor Romney will have as a general-election candidate.”