Manchester, N.H. -- Mitt Romney, desperate to pull out of a campaign nosedive, lashed out at his major competitors at a GOP debate Sunday, on issues ranging President Bush's tax cuts, social security, and foreign policy.
Despite what was seemingly a much stronger appearance for the former Massachusetts governor, by the end of the debate no blood was drawn and the performance appeared unlikely to change many votes.
The forum, sponsored by Fox News, is the former Massachusetts's governor's last chance to use a heavily covered event to undermine Mike Huckabee, who beat him decisively in the January 3 Iowa caucuses, and McCain, who has moved into the lead in the state where Romney had been on top and looked unbeatable for months.
A CNN/WMUR poll released this evening showed McCain ahead of Romney by six points, 32-26, with Huckabee at 14 and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani at 11. A USA Today/Gallup poll gave McCain a smaller, 4-point lead over Romney, 34-30, with Huckabee at 13 and Giuliani at 8.
Appearing at Saint Anslem College, Romney sought to turn the tables at a forum on Saturday night, in which he found himself on the receiving end of criticism, sometimes personal and harsh, from his fellow GOP competitors.
On the issue of taxation, Romney went after his chief competitor for the New Hampshire crown, Sen. John McCain, declaring that McCain "was one of two Republicans who voted against the Bush tax cuts... Sen. McCain continues to believe that, based on his appearance on Meet the Press this morning, that was the right vote to take."
After addressing McCain, Romney turned his attention to Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas Governor who bested him in the Iowa Caucus on Thursday.
"Mike you make up facts faster than you talk and that's saying something," Romney said after Huckabee challenged him on his tax record. To which Huckabee replied, "Someone raises a question and you say it's a personal attack and facts are stubborn things."
Reflecting the outcome of the Iowa caucus, each of the GOP candidates staked his claim to being the nominee who could best bring about change. McCain, who has served in the United States Senate since 1987, dismissed the notion that his time in Washington was a damper on his reform credentials.
"I know that I have been an agent of change," the Senator said. "I'm proud to have been one of those who played a key role in one of the most important changes in years, and that was in the strategy pursued by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld... This change has had enormous benefit to America, our security, and our future... I am very proud in the change in Iraq that as saved young American's lives."
Romney, seeking again to distinguish himself from his Republican rival, echoed remarks that have been made frequently in the Democratic primary by Sen. Barack Obama. "Just sending the same people to Washington but in different chairs is not going to result in a different outcome," he declared.
The reformist talk provided one of the few humorous lines of the night, delivered by former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson: "We had some folks polled in Iowa and everyone came out of there talking about change... I think what is more important is leadership. And what is an important part of leadership is telling the American people the truth."
The topic of Iraq came up infrequently during the proceedings, with much of the discussion spent praising the surge of troops by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus. The candidates, however, were pressed on their national security credentials. Huckabee was asked to explain a series of gaffes he had made on the campaign trail, in which he either did not know or was ill prepared to discuss topics such as U.S. policy to Pakistan and the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran.
"I don't think it's a pattern," he told the moderator Chris Wallace. "When you make lots of speeches there are lots of times when you will make a verbal slip. But I don't slip in my judgment..."
Rudy Giuliani, who had few defining moments during the forum, perked up when the topic switched to what is believed to be his policy strong suit.
"I am the only one here who has had to face an Islamic terrorist attack. I was right at the center of it," said the former New York City mayor of his leadership on 9/11, "and it gives a good indication that I know how to handle what the terrorist will be throwing at us... As the mayor of New York I have been involved in one way or another with just about every single foreign policy issue."