Republican Candidates Take Their Gloves Off Before the New Hampshire Vote

With Romney leading in the polls, the presidential candidates face off in two debates in the lead-up to the New Hampshire primaries.

As the Republican presidential candidates got ready for the New Hampshire primary vote, it looked like the roles in the race were pretty much decided, with Romney still in the lead.

New Hampshire, a compact state, is praised for granting an opportunity even for the weaker candidates to get a fair shot at candidacy, and send their message through.

Republicans - AP - December 2011

Romney is the frontrunner, despite the steady decline in support in New Hampshire. According to the Suffolk University daily tracking poll, in the last five days Romney lost ten points, but still holds a solid lead with 33% among likely GOP voters. Ron Paul has 20 percent, Jon Huntsman - 13 percent, Newt Gingrich - 11 percent, and Rick Santorum - 10 percent, while Rick Perry gets 1%. Only 12% of the local voters are undecided - unlike Iowa, which literally proved that every vote counts. Romney does not only lead in the polls, he also leads in endorsements.

Rick Santorum lost his Iowa momentum - the press attention is still there, and he invested in New Hampshire heavily in campaign events, but New Hampshire is not his natural habitat - he hopes mostly to get into decent shape for the next important stop in the primaries, the much more conservative South Carolina. Alas for him, Mitt Romney leads there too.

Jon Huntsman, who gave up on Iowa, criss-crossing New Hampshire instead, is trying to appeal to the American fatigue of partisan politics, stressing also his foreign policy credentials. For his campaign, New Hampshire results will be a make or break moment.

Rick Perry seems to be the only candidate who in recent days has called repeatedly for the support of the Tea Party. He took part in two debates over the weekend, but will skip Tuesday's vote in New Hampshire, focusing on his campaign events in South Carolina instead.

If Romney keeps his lead until the end of the month, with the January 31 vote in Florida, he can brag that his nomination is secured. But his rivals still fight vigorously - Saturday and Sunday's debates in New Hampshire provided a glimpse of how it looks when politicians take off their gloves.

In Saturday's debate in Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH, hosted by ABC news, Romney defended himself as well as he could, and focusing on his real target, President Obama.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum took a jab at Romney, saying that "business experience doesn't necessarily match up with being a commander-in-chief for this country."

Romney retorted, "I think people who spend their life in Washington don't understand what happens out in the real economy.”

“My experience is in leadership,” he added.

Rep. Ron Paul, who went after Rick Santorum with a negative ad campaign following the former Senator's jump-off in Iowa, continued to attack him at the debate. "What really counts is his record," Paul said. "He's a big government, big spending individual.”

He earned his living “as a high-powered lobbyist in Washington, D.C.," he added.

Santorum hit back, "I've convinced a lot of people because my record is actually pretty darn good.... I go back to the point: I am not a libertarian, Ron. You vote against everything. I don't vote against everything. I do vote for some spending. I do think government has a role to play, particularly in defense."

Talking foreign policy, Mitt Romney and the former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman sparred on China.

Romney accused Huntsman, who used to be the U.S. Ambassador to China, of implementing the Obama administration’s policies in China, "While the rest of the pack were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president from being put forward."

Texas Governor Rick Perry, who decided to stay in the race despite the fact he has got only 10% of the votes in Iowa and is stuck with 1% in New Hampshire, tried to position himself as a Washington outsider.

"I happen to think that I'm the only outsider, with the possible exception of Jon Huntsman, who has not been part of the problem in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

Perry went on to describe the U.S. pullout from Iraq as “a huge error,” that would leave Iraq vulnerable to Iranian aggression.

Gingrich focused instead on the regime change in Iran - "and Iraq will be fine," while Santorum explained that the President needs to help the protesters in Iran "do what's necessary, which is to turn that regime out."

Rep. Ron Paul defended his previous positions on Iran, saying he was "misquoted" regarding his views on Iran’s nuclear program.

"Our policy may be well-intended, but it has a lot of downsides, a lot of unintended consequences and, unfortunately, blowback."

In general, Romney tried to stay focused on Obama - even after repeated attacks by his rivals, he said that he doesn't want "to be critical of the people on this stage. Any one of these people would do a better job in many respects than our president. And I will endorse our nominee."

In the next day's debate hosted by NBC, however, Romney got more caustic.

When Rick Santorum attacked him on giving up on reelection in Massachusetts, Romney replied that "people who spend their life in politics imagine that if you get in politics that that's all you want to do,” he said.

“For me, politics, is not a career. For me, my career was being in business and starting a business and making it successful. I believe by virtue of the experiences I've had that I'm in a good position to make a contribution to Washington," Romney said.

Newt Gingrich urged him to “level” with Americans regarding his commitment and motivations in politics. "You've been running consistently for years and years and years," he said.

Huntsman was the next one to attack Romney’s criticism of his time as Ambassador to China under Obama’s democratic administration, "The American people are tired of the partisan division. They have had enough."

Rick Santorum decided to avenge Saturday's attack by Ron Paul on his record, saying that in congress, Paul "never really passed anything of any importance," and had been “out there on the margins.”