GOP hopefuls to debate, again

January 8, 2012 - 6:42 AM
Republican Debate

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry (L-R) are introduced before a Republican presidential candidate debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Mitt Romney's rivals have one more chance to bruise the front-runner ahead of Tuesday's voting during a Sunday morning faceoff just hours after he largely brushed aside their criticism in the opening round of a weekend debate doubleheader.

The six GOP hopefuls are set to spar one final time before voters go to the polls Tuesday in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

They met onstage in nearby Manchester less than 12 hours earlier. That Saturday night contest left Romney's rivals squabbling among themselves and unable to knock him off stride.

Romney, in turn, largely ignored his fellow Republicans and focused instead on President Barack Obama.

"His policies have made the recession deeper and his policies have made the recovery more tepid," he said, despite a declining unemployment rate and the creation of 200,000 jobs last month.

Over the course of the lively 90-minute debate, there were attacks aplenty as Romney's GOP opponents vied to emerge as his principal rival in the primaries ahead. Romney won an eight-vote victory in the Iowa caucuses last Tuesday and is far ahead in the pre-primary polls in New Hampshire.

That leaves his pursuers little time to stop his rise, and, all but conceding New Hampshire to the former governor of next-door Massachusetts, they're mostly focusing their efforts on the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21.

Romney, who often touts his business background, was attacked in the opening minutes of the debate.

Rick Santorum went first, dismissing him as a mere manager.

"Being a president is not a CEO. You've got to lead and inspire," he said.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich followed a few moments later, referring to published accounts that described how some workers were laid off after Bain Capital, the firm Romney once led, invested in their companies and sought to turn them around by cutting staff and firing workers.

He said Romney should be judged on the basis of whether "on balance, were people better off or worse off by this style of management."

In reply, Romney said Bain had created 100,000 jobs, and that a businessman's experience was far better to fix the economy than a career spent in Washington.

"I'm very proud of the fact that the two enterprises I led were successful," he said, referring to Bain and another firm.

More than an hour later, Romney turned one question about his vision for the country into an attack on Obama that is part of his standard campaign speech. While his rivals stood by silently, he accused the president of trying to turn the United States into a "European-style welfare state."

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, meanwhile, assailed Santorum as a "big government person," an allegation the former Pennsylvania senator disputed. Santorum, a social conservative, finished a close second to Romney in Iowa this week, with Paul coming in third.

Gingrich was fourth in Iowa, Texas Gov. Rick Perry fifth and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has since quit the race, finished last. Jon Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, did not compete there, putting his effort into trying to make a good showing in New Hampshire.

The skirmishes reflected the state of the race: Romney the acknowledged front-runner under attack from his rivals, who face an increasingly urgent need to emerge as his main conservative challenger.

Saturday's debate at Saint Anselm College was the first in more than three weeks, and the first since Bachmann's departure.