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CONCORD, N.H. -- Mitt Romney's rivals came out slugging against the Republican front-runner Sunday morning in a collective pummeling that contrasted with the placid tone of another debate just 12 hours earlier.
As they made their most visible 11th-hour appeals to voters in the first primary state, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum portrayed Mr. Romney as a shape-shifting moderate whose nomination would blunt the Republicans' strongest lines of attack against the Obama Administration.
"I think what Republicans have to ask is who's most likely … to survive against the kind of billion-dollar campaign the Obama team is gonna run," said Mr. Gingrich in the opening moments of the campaign's 15th debate. "And I think that a bold Reagan conservative with a very strong economic plan is a lot more likely to succeed in that campaign than a relatively timid Massachusetts moderate who even the Wall Street Journal said had an economy plan so timid it resembled Obama."
Mr. Gingrich went on to assail the Romney record in neighboring Massachusetts, noting that the state had ranked near the bottom nationally in job growth.
Mr. Romney defended his tenure, saying he had repeatedly cut taxes and turned around the state's employment trajectory.
"I'm very proud of the conservative record I have and I think that's why some of the leading conservatives in today's world who are fighting the conservative battles of today that don't have any ax to grind have gotten behind my campaign," he said, pointing to some of the figures who would campaign with him across the state later in the day.
"Well, if his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts, why didn't he run for re-election?" Mr. Santorum demanded, referring to Mr. Romney's exit in the face of sliding poll numbers at the end of his sole term.
"I mean, if you didn't wanna even stand before the people of Massachusetts and run on your record. If it was that great … why did you bail out? I mean the … bottom line is, you know, I go and fight the fight."
"For me, politics is not a career," Mr. Romney replied. Then, in an apparent shot at Mr. Santorum's post-Senate employment, he said, "I long for a day where instead of having people go to Washington for 20 and 30 years who get elected and then when they lose office they stay there and make money as lobbyists or connecting to businesses, I think it stinks."
To that declaration, Mr. Gingrich, who has grated at his treatment at the hands of a super political action committee aligned with the Romney campaign, said, "Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney? The fact is you ran [against the late Sen. Ted Kennedy] in '94 and lost. That's why you weren't serving in the Senate with Rick Santorum."
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, in perhaps his strongest performance of the long series of GOP encounters, also joined in the assault on Mr. Romney, who holds a strong polling lead here.
"I was criticized last night by Governor Romney for putting my country first," he said, referring to the questions Mr. Romney raised about his service as the Obama Administration's ambassador to China.
Mr. Huntsman, who is hoping to appeal to the state's numerous independent voters, added, "He criticized me, while he was out raising money, for serving my country in China. Yes, under a Democrat. Like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. … I want to be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and this country. I will always put my country first."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry criticized nearly all of his rivals. Casting his eye across the stage of Concord's Capitol Center for the Arts, he said, "I look from here down to Rick Santorum. I see insiders. Individuals who have been the big-spending Republicans in Washington, D.C.
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"And let's be honest with ourselves," he continued. "I mean the fact of the matter is that Obama has thrown gasoline on the fire, but the bonfire was burning well before Obama got there. It was policies and spending, both from Wall Street and from the insiders in Washington, D.C., that got us in this problem."
Mr. Perry drew laughter and exaggerated applause from some of his opponents as he mocked his own notorious gaffe in a previous debate, when he could not recall the three Cabinet departments he had pledged to abolish. He successfully named them Sunday morning, then held out three fingers in a gesture of smiling self-congratulation.
"We have a president who's a Socialist," he said at another point. "I don't think our founding fathers wanted America to be a Socialist country," he added -- a safe bet since the political designation had yet to be invented.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who has been a consistent strong second in the polls here, appeared in a less combative mood than at the previous debate where he clashed with Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum.
"This whole discussion so far has been very superficial," he said.
"I don't see how we can do well against Obama if we have any candidate who endorsed a single-payer [health care] system, TARP bailouts …,'' Mr. Paul said. ''I don't see how we can compete with Obama [if we] don't challenge this huge empire we have overseas and the overseas spending."
After the first 20 minutes of the 90-minute debate, his challengers appeared to have exhausted most of their criticisms of Mr. Romney. The debate turned to other subjects until near the end, when Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney clashed over the accuracy of critical ads aired by ostensibly independent super-PACs.
Mr. Santorum offered a critique of Mr. Paul, saying he had been an ineffectual lawmaker, but warning that his isolationist foreign policy views would pose a danger to the nation if he became commander in chief.
"He's been out there on the margins," Mr. Santorum said. "All the things Republicans like about him he won't accomplish and all the things that are dangerous he'll do on day one."
In response to a question, Mr. Romney defended his record on gay rights, noting that one of his Massachusetts Cabinet members had been gay. While noting that he had appointed gay candidates to a variety of other senior positions, he reiterated his opposition to gay marriage. Mr. Santorum, who in his Senate career was an outspoken opponent of gay marriage, was asked what he would do if a son told him he was gay.
"I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it," he said.
The debate was sponsored by NBC, the New Hampshire Union Leader, and Facebook, and moderated by David Gregory in an extended edition of Meet the Press.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole is politics editor at the Post-Gazette.
Contact James O'Toole at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 412-263-1562.