Huffpost Politics

New Hampshire Debate: Mitt Romney Brushes Off Attacks

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MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Mitt Romney brushed aside rivals' criticism Saturday night in the opening round of a weekend debate doubleheader that left his Republican presidential campaign challengers squabbling among themselves far more than trying to knock the front-runner off stride.

"Remarkable what a cakewalk this debate is for Romney," CNBC's John Harwood wrote in a tweet on Saturday night.

Three days before the first in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, Romney largely ignored his fellow Republicans and turned 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 two-hour debate, there were attacks aplenty as Romney's five rivals vied to emerge as his principal rival in the primaries ahead. The former Massachusetts governor 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 focusing their efforts on the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21

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

Paul, who has called former House Speaker Newt Gingrich a "chicken hawk" who has not served in the military, drew withering criticism in return. "I personally resent the kinds of comments and aspersions he routinely makes," Gingrich said.

Paul got the last word, saying emphatically, "When I was drafted I was married and had two kids, and I went." He was an Air Force surgeon in the Vietnam War era.

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

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.

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.

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."

Unruffled, the former Massachusetts governor retorted that Bain had created 100,000 jobs on balance, and that a businessman's experience was far better to fix the economy that a lifetime spent in Washington, D.C. "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 Europe, `adding, "He's making us into something we wouldn't recognize."

Below, HuffPost's live blog coverage of the debate.

Manchester, N.H. -- As he was leaving the debate and hustling to his car, Rick Santorum said that he doubted his ability to win in New Hampshire, a statement of the obvious but an admission no candidate likes to make right before a primary.

"The fact is we didn't have the money here," he said. "We have no money on TV."

He said that he was better prepared to "do very well" in South Carolina on Jan. 21, but stopped short of predicting victory there either.

Santorum expressed some frustration that his low-key responses to Mitt Romney or his jibes at the frontrunner went unnoticed. "I thought I was pretty tough, but I was also taught to be respectful."

Santorum evidently decided long ago to ditch his old "Senator Slash" persona. Nice guy has worked so far, but it remains to be seen if it carries him where he wants to go.

-- Howard Fineman

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MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Mitt Romney pushed back against debate moderator George Stephanopoulos over repeated questions about whether he believes states have a right to ban contraception, calling it "an unusual topic" to raise.

In the spin room after the candidates filed out, Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters that Stephanopoulos had a "strange obsession with the subject of contraception."

"No candidate on stage has proposed cracking down on contraception," Fehrnstrom continued. "No state is looking at it. The only person for whom it's an issue is George Stephanopoulos. You should ask him about it."

-- Michael Calderone

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Exeter Patch's Marc Fortier reports the reaction of New Hampshire Republican insiders to tonight's debate.

"This debate proves that the real competition is for second and third place," said Jennifer Horn of Nashua, a former Republican Congressional candidate who recently endorsed Romney. "All the candidates went after each other, not Romney."

"Nothing is going to change anyone's opinion tonight," added Mike Dennehy, a partner at Dennehy & Bouley. "Mitt Romney's been very strong. Nobody's knocked him off his game."

Read more here.

-- John Celock

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If you can get a message to Ben Sherwood at ABC News, please tell him thanks for shutting this down earlier than anticipated. In case you didn't know, BREAKING: Republican candidates for president are generically opposed to gay marriage and abortion. The debate did not "pivot to jobs" until its last third, and it ended with a CNN-type goofball question, essentially, "What would you rather be doing tonight?"

Answers were varied. Newt would be watching the basketball game. Someone corrected him and said there was football on tonight. (There is, but there's also college basketball happening.) Romney said he'd be "watching the championship game." (There is no championship game on tonight.) Ron Paul said he's rather be reading an economic textbook. I would rather be liveblogging the experience of watching Ron Paul read that textbook. (Maybe I'd catch him publishing a newsletter!)

I came into tonight wondering how tomorrow morning's debate moderators at NBC News would manage with the task of having to stage a debate mere hours after a competitor's. But it's not going to be a problem at all! NBC News can ask questions all day long about economic issues without having to worry about getting repeats of answers from tonight.

"We are so grateful for the debate tonight," Diane Sawyer said. Who is the "we"?

(Oh yeah, and no one laid a glove on Mitt Romney, in case you're wondering. He spent most of the debate relaxing. The whole notion that Romney's competitors are going to come out, guns blazing, and take him down and/or out is the most hotly-anticipated-yet-never-occurring event in American politics right now.)

-- Jason Linkins

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MANCHESTER, N.H. -- An exchange between Romney and Santorum on China led to one of the most awkward moments of the night: Jon Huntsman speaking in Mandarin.

Huntsman, as he has before, hit Romney for saying he will label China a currency manipulator during his first day in office.

"It's not sense to think you can slap a tariff on China the first day that you're in office as Gov. Romney would like to do," said Huntsman, who was the U.S. ambassador to China from 2009 to 2010.

Romney hit back.

"I'm sorry. Governor, you were, the last two years, implementing the policies of this administration in China. The rest of us on the stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president from being put forward," Romney said, then launched into why he wants to push back against China if he's president.

Huntsman, somewhat exasperated, shot back: "I think it's important to note, as they say in China, 'ta butai liaojie zhege qingxing.' He doesn't seem to understand the situation."

The audience laughed as Huntsman said his lines in Mandarin. Huntsman has done that before in debates, but never in a way that appeared as if he were trying to flaunt his knowledge of the language. Huntsman has had a tough time going off script or making jokes this entire debate

season, usually coming off awkwardly, and this moment seemed to capture that perfectly.

Thanks to The New York Times' Michael Luo for writing out what exactly Huntsman said.

-- Jon Ward

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@ howardfineman : For the record, Huntsman said in Mandarin, "you don't know what you're talking about" to Mitt

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MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum took a swing at Mitt Romney's economic policies, hitting him for using the term "middle class":

The governor used the term earlier that I shrink from. It's one i don't think we should be using as Republicans. Middle class. There are no classes in America. We are a country that doesn't allow for titles. We don't put people in classes. Maybe middle income people. But the idea somehow or another we're going to buy into the class warfare arguments of Barack Obama is something that should not be part of the Republican lexicon. That's their job: divide, separate, pit one group against another. That's not the language that I'll use as president. I'll use the language of bringing people together.

So, "middle income people" is okay. "Middle class" is not.

-- Amanda Terkel

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@ howardfineman : Newt mistakes basketball for football. oops.

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@ howardfineman : Santorum is at his best when he is most Pittsburgh, as he was in his middle class and jobs answer. As a fellow yinzer, I know he knows it.

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@ howardfineman : "I'm gonna tell the Chinese to stop," says Mitt. Huntsman answers in Chinese! Then he says Mitt would start a trade war. Mitt resists French

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Detroit, a municipality whose denizens have been heavily courted by Mitt Romney, is in a dogfight with the New Orleans Saints. They trail 24-21 as the third quarter comes to a close. Quarterbacks Drew Brees and Matt Stafford each have two touchdown passes, and both are flirting with 300 yards of total passing.

This was my attempt to fulfill my editor's request to "start liveblogging the football game and see if anybody notices."

-- Jason Linkins

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@ howardfineman : Mitt is now filibustering again, reciting whole swatches of his stump speech. I can't believe ABC is letting him get away with it.

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@ howardfineman : It's hard to believe it, but these guys have to get up and do this again at 9 a.m. And so do we, and so do you.

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@ howardfineman : Here we thought everyone would spend the debate attacking Mitt. It hasn't happened. The candidates haven't; neither has ABC. Mitt glides on.

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CNBC's John Harwood tweeted Saturday night, "Remarkable what a cakewalk this debate is for Romney."

And he's right! I noted before the debate that this is the same venue where Tim Pawlenty failed to go after Romney in June when asked about his "Obamneycare" criticism. And well past the halfway mark, Romney is again unscathed in this debate, as the others have held back for the most part on going after him. Of course, a long portion of questions from ABC's moderators that focused on social policy like contraception and gay marriage helped Romney, as it caused all of the Republicans to circle the wagons.

-- Jon Ward

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@ howardfineman : scorecard so far: Mitt untouched, sensible, sly-funny; Paul: nasty attacker: Newt: a hit with Catholics; Santorum: defensive, not a star.

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MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry hit President Obama for ending the Iraq war and pulling out U.S. troops -- carrying out a Status of Forces Agreement first negotiated between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government.

"I would send troops back into Iraq," he said. "I think we start talking with the Iraqi individuals there. The idea that we allow the Iranians to come back into Iraq and take over that country, with all of the treasure, both in blood and money, that we have spent in Iraq -- because this president wants to kowtow to his liberal leftist base, and move out those men and women. He could have renegotiated that time frame. I think it is a huge error for us."

Perry added, "We're going to see Iran, in my opinion, move back in at literally the speed of light. They're going to move back in, and all of the work we've done -- every young man that has lost his life in that country will have been for nothing. Because we've got a president that does not understand what's going on in that region."

The speed of light is fast, and it seems doubtful that Iran will be moving back into Iraq in that timeframe. The last U.S. troops left Iraq at the end of 2011, so presumably, if Iran were moving at such a quick pace, it would already be there.

-- Amanda Terkel

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Mitt Romney joined Rick Santorum Saturday night in opposition to a Supreme Court decision that found states had no right to ban contraception, calling for the decision to be overturned. Unlike Santorum, Romney appeared largely unfamiliar with the finer details of the constitutional argument, which focuses on Griswold v. Connecticut, a case that plays a central role in the constitutional debate over reproductive rights. The 1965 decision found that the constitution includes a right to privacy and determined that, as a result, states could not ban birth control pills.

Romney said he was fine with the decision. Moderator George Stephanopoulos gave Romney a second chance. "But you accept a Supreme Court decision finding a right to privacy in the Constitution?" he asked.

"I don't believe they decided that correctly," he said. "My view, Roe v. Wade was decided incorrectly and was based on that same principle."

Santorum has called for overturning Griswold as part of his effort to allow states to ban abortion. Romney thought the entire conversation was ridiculous. "I don't know whether a state has the right to ban contraception. No state wants to," Romney said. "The idea of you putting things forward that no state wants to do and then asking me whether they can do it or not is kind of a silly thing."

-- Ryan Grim

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@ howardfineman : my friend Lawrence O'Donnell notes Mitt was the soul of reasonableness on the contraception answer. "He can do reasonable," LO rightly says.

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MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Jon Huntsman's strength as a candidate has always been his fluency in talking about international issues. And one of the problems confronting him has been that the primary is being waged largely on economic grounds. On Saturday night, he had one of his strongest moments when he laid out the need to quickly draw back from Afghanistan, arguing, against Mitt Romney, that you don't simply leave those decisions to generals.

"I would like to tell Mitt that the president of the United States is the commander in chief," he said. "I don't want to be a president who invests another penny in civil war."

That facilitated a lengthy discussion involving all of the candidates about just how, where, and in what fashion America needed to be deployed in the Middle East, capped off by another exchange in which Rick Santorum accused Huntsman of naivety.

"Let's just wait a few weeks and months," said Santorum, until after the U.S. leaves to see how bad it gets. Huntsman pressed him on exactly when he would withdraw forces. "Till the security of the country is ensured. You make that decision, not the generals... you confront that threat not just militarily..."

-- Sam Stein

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@ howardfineman : As before -- often -- Mitt is standing around with a smile on his face and is sailing through this debate

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This is getting sad and hilarious for Rick Perry, who just got this question.

"Governor Perry, who do you think is making the better argument, Senator Santorum or Governor Huntsman?"

ABC News has basically decided that Perry is their color commentator.

-- Jason Linkins

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You never want to be the guy on stage who gets the question, "Do you think everyone on this stage should rule out third party candidacies?" That's the question Rick Perry got tonight -- he quickly answered it and used the rest of his allotted time to reaffirm his opposition to gay marriage and slam the president for waging a "war on religion."

In contrast, from what people on the ground are saying in New Hampshire, Jon Huntsman was getting a lot of questions from reporters about Romney and Santorum and who he thought would prevail over the other. Tonight, at least, he's being treated as the more serious candidate.

-- Jason Linkins

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@ howardfineman : Barack, are you watching? the GOP candidates are debating putting troops back into Iraq! Time to celebrate at the White House.

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@ howardfineman : Perry wants to send troops BACK to Eye-Rack! It's always good to have a Texan on the case.

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@ howardfineman : Newt, energized, gets back into lecturer groove, on foreign policy. Santorum is a hawk but he seems more like a critic than a commander.

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@ jonward11 : Newt says Iraq "began decaying within 24 hours of our last troops leaving." hmm.

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If asked, Mitt Romney would tell a gay couple that committing to a long-term, loving relationship is "a wonderful thing to do," he said in response to a question from a Yahoo user presented by ABC's Diane Sawyer. But "that doesn’t mean they have to call it marriage," he said.

Nor, apparently, would he want them to have kids. "The nation as a whole will be better off," he said, if children have a "male and a female" parent.

"Three thousand years of human history shouldn't be discarded so quickly," he said.

-- Dan Froomkin

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@ howardfineman : consensus on the blogs is that Newt scored in defense of Catholics. He converted three years ago but he stole a march on Santorum on that.

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@ howardfineman : Paul is really threatening to bold, no matter what he says here. He told me two days ago "I'll decide that later," when I asked if he'd bolt

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