MANCHESTER, N.H. (Jan. 7, 2012) — With Mitt Romney’s overwhelming lead in the polls, the other five Republican candidates used Saturday night’s debate to assert themselves as an alternative choice.
Rick Santorum and Ron Paul clashed over spending. Newt Gingrich and Paul also sparred on the importance of a military record in a president. Both Jon Huntsman and Texas Gov. Rick Perry cast themselves as outsiders who could fix Washington’s problems.
During the debate, Romney continued his campaign’s trend of attacking the Obama administration more than attacking his fellow candidates. Romney repeated lines he has used throughout his campaign about his experience in the private sector and about needing to reinvigorate the American spirit. “We have a nation which is based upon opportunity and merit,” Romney said. “We draw people here who seek freedom, and these people have built enterprises that employ and that make America stronger.”
In attacking Obama, he said, “We have a president who has an entirely different view. He wants us to turn into a European-style welfare state and have government take from some to give to others.”
The debate was the 14th of the primary season. It was at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, N.H. Saturday night’s debate was sponsored by ABC News and Manchester’s ABC affiliate WMUR-TV. ABC News anchors Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos, as well as local anchor Josh McElveen, moderated the debate.
Romney entered Saturday night polling more than twice as high as his closest competitor. Suffolk University and Boston’s WHDH 7 News’ latest poll shows Romney leading with 39 percent of likely voters, followed by Paul at 17 and Gingrich at 10 percent. With his high lead in New Hampshire, Romney has already been looking ahead to South Carolina. He visited South Carolina on Thursday and Friday.
Santorum entered New Hampshire aiming to keep the momentum he garnered after his near-tie with Romney in the Iowa caucuses. Santorum benefited from conservative voters’ desire to find an alternative to relatively moderate Romney. After Gingrich rose and fell in the polls, Santorum surged, placing second in Iowa with just eight votes behind Romney.
In Saturday’s debate, Santorum cited his record as fiscal conservative, saying he was often praised by groups that rated lawmakers on that issue. “I was at the top or near the top every single year,” he said.
For his part, Paul critized Santorum for his voting record on a balanced-budget amendment. “He preached to the fact he wanted a balanced budget amendment but voted to raise the debt to five times,” Paul said.
As he has dropped in the polls, Gingrich and his campaign has turned increasingly negative toward Romney. Gingrich has previously blamed Romney for his decline in the polls because of fierce attacks by the Romney campaign. In retaliation in New Hampshire, the Gingrich campaign released a flier Saturday with the message “Not Romney!” that points out, “Romney is not a conservative” and “Romney is not electable.”
In the debate, Gingrich spent most of the night fighting with Paul, not Romney. The two sparred over Paul’s recent comment that Gingrich does not understand how to be commander in chief because is a “chicken hawk” for not serving in any wars. Gingrich noted that his father served World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He also said Paul “has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false.”
Paul’s retort re-asserted his own experience: “I need one quick follow-up. When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids, and I went.”
The debate marked Perry’s first appearance in New Hampshire since last Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses. There, Perry placed fifth, receiving just 10 percent of Iowans’ votes. Afterward, he returned to Texas to re-evaluate to his campaign. He decided to stay in the race at least until South Carolina votes Jan. 21.
Perry’s floundering campaign was evident in how little he spoke Saturday night. In order to get his first word in, Perry needed to interrupt Paul during Paul’s argument with Santorum on spending.
“I think you’ve just seen a great example of why I got in this race,” Perry asserted, “because 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., the insiders in Washington, D.C.”
The contenders will face off once more before New Hampshire residents vote Jan. 10. Facebook, the New Hampshire Union Leader and NBC News are hosting another debate Sunday morning that will air on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
(Rebecca Kheel, a senior with dual majors in newspaper journalism and history, is covering the New Hampshire primary for The Berkshire Eagle.)