GOFFSTOWN, N.H. - Mitt Romney is facing nearly four hours of debates this weekend with the Republicans trying to knock him out of the lead for the Republican presidential nomination.
Halfway through, he’s still in front.
Near the end of last night’s ABC News/Yahoo! News/WMUR-TV debate, Rick Santorum challenged him for the health care policy he enacted while governor of Massachusetts, while earlier in the debate, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman dinged him for job losses while he led Bain Capital.
But overall, Romney was left free to expound wildly on his strength - his economic plans for the country - and was so unmolested by his rivals he even recited a part of his stump speech quoting patriotic tunes.
Romney hardly had to cower during the bulk of the 90-minute discussion at St. Anselm College. He carries a head of momentum into this morning’s sequel, another 90-minute debate hosted by NBC’s “Meet the Press” and Facebook.
“I think people have to recognize that what’s at stake in this election is jobs, yes; and balancing the budget, yes; and dealing with our extraordinary overhang from our entitlements,” he said. “But, really, this election is about the soul of America. The question is, what is America going to be? And we have in Washington today a president who has put America on a road to decline, militarily, internationally and, domestically, he’s making us into something we wouldn’t recognize.”
If there was one other non-loser during the first of the two rare back-to-back debates, it was Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Just days after he considered quitting his campaign following a fifth-place Iowa caucus finish, he seems reenergized by a quick trip home to Texas and a recalibration of his campaign to focus on the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary rather than Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
The candidate who famously stumbled in several early debates, and committed an epic memory lapse in another, reached out to social and fiscal conservatives in the Bible Belt.
He delivered a pair of an anti-Washington screeds, vowed to send US troops back to Iraq to preserve gains there, and unleashed a double-barreled blast at President Obama for what he branded the administration’s “war” on religion.
“When we see an administration that will not defend the Defense of Marriage Act, that gives their Justice Department clear instructions to go take the ministerial exception away from our churches where that’s never happened before; when we see this administration not giving money to Catholic charities for sexually trafficked individuals because they don’t agree with the Catholic church on abortion, that is a war against religion. And it’s going to stop under a Perry administration,” Perry said.
It was a strong performance for a candidate who didn’t even make his first comment until the debate was nearly 18 minutes old.
The sixth candidate on the stage, US Representative Ron Paul of Texas, also delivered a noteworthy performance as exemplified in one tension-filled exchange.
He was bluntly asked whether he stood by his prior criticism that Gingrich is a “chicken hawk” for not serving in the military yet voting to send US troops to war.
“I think people who don’t serve when they could and they get three or four or even five deferments aren’t, they have no right to send our kids off to war, and not be even against the wars that we have,” the congressman said.
Gingrich replied: “Dr. Paul has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false. The fact is, I never asked for deferment. I was married with a child. It was never a question. My father was, in fact, serving in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta at the time he’s referring to.
Tugging at an emotional string, the former House speaker added: “I think I have a pretty good idea of what it’s like as a family to worry about your father getting killed. And I personally resent the kind of comments and aspersions he routinely makes without accurate information and then just slurs people with.”
Paul, undeterred, responded: “I need one quick follow-up. When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids - and I went.”
Gingrich countered, “I wasn’t eligible for the draft,” but his response was drowned out by applause for Paul.
Santorum came into the debate facing the highest expectations.
He finished a narrow second to Romney in Iowa, and the question was whether he could carry that momentum into a less conservative New Hampshire. Like Perry, Gingrich, and others, though, Santorum seemed to look beyond New Hampshire and on to move hospitable territory in South Carolina with his answers.
No longer on the fringes but, for the first time, standing center-stage with Romney, he briefly took on the frontrunner by name and mounted a passionate defense of blue-collar workers.
“I don’t think Governor Romney’s (economic) plan is particularly bold,” said the former Pennsylvania senator. “And the governor used a term earlier that I shrink from, and it’s one that I don’t think we should be using as Republicans: ‘middle class.’”
Painting with a broad philosophical brush for many people hearing from him for the first time, Santorum said: “There are no classes in America. We are a country that don’t allow for titles. We don’t put people in classes. There may be ‘middle-income’ people, but the idea that 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, put one group against another. That’s not the language that I’ll use as president. I’ll use the language of bringing people together.”
Huntsman also faced great expectations leading into the debate.
Having skipped Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire, he faces the expectation of finishing at least third to Romney and either Paul or Santorum on Tuesday.
He did little to distinguish himself except on two occasions: when he said he would enact the bold spending and programmatic cuts proposed by the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission, and when he became perhaps the first US presidential candidate to chide one of his rivals on stage in fluent Mandarin.
Huntsman was asked to outline his vision for dealing with China and competing around the world.
“We’ve got to make it work,” Huntsman said. “Of course we have challenges with them. We’ve had challenges for 40 years. It’s nonsense to think you can slap a tariff on China the first day that you’re in office, as Governor Romney would like to do.”
Romney, after holding back months of frustration with Huntsman, shot back: “I’m sorry, governor, you were, the last two years, implementing the policies of this administration in China. The rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president from being put forward.”
Huntsman, the former US ambassador to China, used Mandarin to say, “He doesn’t quite understand this situation,” sending a roar of laughter through the press filing center and no doubt homes across the country.
Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.