CONCORD, N.H. -- The Republican presidential candidates came alive Sunday morning during their second debate in 12 hours, trading verbal blows and taking on frontrunner Mitt Romney in a way that had been expected the previous evening.
Romney deftly swatted back the attacks, showing once again how slick a debater he has become. Nonetheless, a new overnight tracking poll showed signs of slippage in the former Massachusetts governor's lead in the Granite State, with two days left before the first-in-the-nation primary.
The Suffolk University/7 News poll showed Romney's support in New Hampshire down to 35 percent from 43 percent last Tuesday, although Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) was still double digits away at 20 percent. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was surging in the survey to third place, with 11 percent. And former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) was also moving backwards to 8 percent, down from 11 percent just two days ago. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was at 9 percent.
Huntsman was the surprise of the morning. He seemed to connect during the NBC/Facebook debate, with his focus on restoring the trust of the American people. He also drew Romney into an exchange in which Romney, as he had done Saturday night during the ABC debate, disparaged Huntsman's 2009-10 service as U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama.
"I think we serve our country first by standing for people who believe in conservative principles and doing everything in our power to promote an agenda that does not include President Obama's agenda," Romney said. "The person who should represent our party running against President Obama is not someone who called him a remarkable leader and went to be his ambassador in China."
Huntsman shot back immediately with a line that drew enthusiastic applause from the audience: "This nation is divided because of attitudes like that."
"The American people are tired of the partisan division. They have had enough. There is no trust left," Huntsman added.
It was Romney's pettiest moment of the morning. At other points, however, he was able to fend off knocks from Gingrich and Santorum, who took aim at Romney in the debate's first few moments.
"He wouldn't stand up for conservative principles. He ran from Ronald Reagan," Santorum said of Romney's unsuccessful 1994 bid for the U.S. Senate against Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). "We want someone when the time gets tough ... who's going to stand up and fight for the conservative principles."
Santorum also hit Romney because he did not run for reelection after his first term as Massachusetts governor. "If his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts, why didn't he run for reelection? Why did you bail out?" asked Santorum.
Romney responded that he did not consider politics a career, but instead ran for public office out of altruistic motives.
"I went to Massachusetts to make a difference," Romney said. "Run again? That would be about me."
"Politics is not a career. For me, my career was being in business," he added.
Gingrich, whose irritation with Romney has become volcanic in recent weeks, could not contain himself.
"I realize the red light doesn't mean anything to you because you're the frontrunner, but can we drop a little of the pious baloney?" Gingrich spat out. "Just level with the American people. You have been running at least since the 1990s."
But it was an exchange between Gingrich and Romney at the end of the debate that showed Romney's ability to maintain a calm veneer while punching back hard in a televised format. Gingrich complained that ads run by a super PAC supporting Romney presented false information.
Romney made a small slip by claiming that he had not seen the ads and then detailing charges in the TV spots as Gingrich looked on with a grimace. Romney methodically ticked off the criticisms: Gingrich was forced out of the speakership in the House, he sat down with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to promote global warming legislation, he criticized the Medicare reform plan offered by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and he was the subject of an investigation by the House Ethics Committee.
"Those things were all true," Romney said.
The Romney campaign is fully aware of the challenges of TV debates, which have played a bigger role in this presidential primary than in past contests. As former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu told The Huffington Post after Saturday night's snoozer of a debate in Manchester, N.H., "Television is a harsh medium."
"If you're harsh on television, that gets magnified. And it's hard to be tough. It's a real tight balance," Sununu said.
Romney showed once again why the experience gained from running four years ago has helped him to stand out from the other candidates in these high-profile, high-pressure debate settings. He also has a campaign machine that dwarfs and outperforms all others in the field.
Still, Romney has failed to close the deal with Republican voters, and if his numbers continue to slip ahead of Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, he could move on to South Carolina's Jan. 21 contest in a somewhat weakened position. The problem for the anti-Romney contingent in the GOP, however, is that none of the other candidates present a compelling alternative. Or at least they don't yet.
In the meantime, the Romney campaign has argued that a win in New Hampshire will -- no matter what the margin -- be a tremendous achievement.
"If Mitt wins, I think the history-making nature of that win will overwhelm all the other coverage of the race to this point. No non-incumbent Republican has ever won Iowa and New Hampshire," Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told HuffPost Saturday night. "So I don't think it matters whether he wins by a few votes as he did in Iowa or by some bigger number. I think it will be history-making in its own way."