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.
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