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Analysis: Feeling urgency, Gingrich, Santorum come out swinging

Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Republican presidential candidates stood together before this morning’s debate at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, N.H.

CONCORD, N.H. — Maybe they were testy from a lack of sleep. Maybe they felt urgency from the dwindling number of days until the New Hampshire primary.

Or maybe they were simply sick and tired of 2012 Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney.

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In any case, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were anxious to vault from a series of pointed questions this morning into a tag-team against the former Massachusetts governor.

The confrontation came during a debate held just hours after another debate in which they barely touched Romney.

It also occurred two days before the first 2012 presidential primary and five days after Romney finished first, Santorum second, and Gingrich fourth behind Ron Paul in the Iowa caucuses.

Santorum is aiming for another strong finish in New Hampshire before the former Pennsylvania senator takes his campaign to more hospitable conservative territory in South Carolina. Gingrich, meanwhile, is trying to stave off a second non-medal finish that could doom his candidacy.

“There’s a huge difference between a Reagan conservative and somebody who comes out of the Massachusetts culture with an essentially moderate record, who I think will have a very hard time in a debate with [the] president,” Gingrich said when moderator David Gregory of NBC’s “Meet the Press” asked the former House speaker if he felt Romney were electable.

Romney retorted: “I’m very proud of the record that I have, and I think the one thing you can’t fool the people about New Hampshire about is the record of a governor next door. And people have watched me over my term as governor and saw that I was a solid conservative and that I brought important change to Massachusetts.”

That prompted Santorum to pile on, saying, “Well, if his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts why didn’t he run for reelection? I mean if you didn’t want to even stand before the people of Massachusetts and run on your record. If it was that great, why didn’t you, why did you bail out?”

Romney, eager to project calm in the face of attacks that had been expected but largely did not materialize 12 hours earlier, tried to climb to even higher ground.

“I went to Massachusetts to make it different. I didn’t go there to begin a political career, running time and time again,” he said. “Run again? That would be about me.”

That comment set off Gingrich.

Noting Romney’s answers blew through the designated time limit, he could barely conceal his contempt as he said, “I realize the red light doesn’t mean anything to you because you’re the frontrunner. But can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney? The fact is you ran in ‘94 (for the US Senate) and lost. That’s why you weren’t serving in the Senate with Rick Santorum.”

Romney then backpedaled by saying, “I happened to have been wise enough to realize I didn’t have a ghost of a chance of beating (Democratic incumbent Edward M. Kennedy). ...And I told my partners in my firm, ‘I’ll be back in six months. Don’t take my chair.’”

The record attack was only the first of three sharp anti-Romney moments in the second half of a rare back-to-back debate weekend. Last night, the candidates also met for 90 minutes at St. Anselm College.

Today the venue was the Capitol Center for the Arts in the capital city of Concord. Also on stage were Texas Governor Rick Perry, Representative Ron Paul of Texas, and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman.

Huntsman, who has staked his own candidacy on a strong showing in New Hampshire, took advantage of his first chance to speak to return to a criticism Romney lodged the night before.

Romney had tweaked Huntsman for resigning to serve as President Obama’s US ambassador to China while “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.”

Today Huntsman picked a fight, saying: “I want to be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and this country: I will always put my country first. And I think that’s important to them.”

He also noted his two sons are serving in the Navy under the Democratic president, a silent contrast to Romney, none of whose five sons have served in the military.

Romney, who has competed with Huntsman for an unofficial leadership role in their shared Mormon church community, replied: “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.”

Huntsman said in response: “This nation is divided ... because of attitudes like that.”

The remark triggered applause.

Perry, meanwhile, had a second consecutive debate performance — within the confines of his goals.

He came to New Hampshire after Iowa only to appear in the debates; he has refocused his campaign on a last-stand strategy in South Carolina. And with that more conservative audience as his target, he continued to promote himself as a Washington outsider.

Perry also spoke in unusually sharp terms as he attacked Obama.

“I make a very proud statement,” he said, “that we have a president that’s a socialist. I don’t think our Founding Fathers wanted America to be a socialist country. So I disagree with that premise that somehow or another that President Obama reflects our Founding Fathers. He doesn’t. He talks about having a more powerful, more centralized, more consuming and costly federal government.”

Santorum, also looking ahead to South Carolina, nonetheless targeted Paul in the battle for second place.

“One of the reasons people like Congressman Paul is his economic plan. He’s never been able to accomplish any of that. He has no track record of being able to work together. He’s been out there on the margins,” Santorum said of his libertarian rival.

Meanwhile, Santorum said, Paul could pursue an isolationist military policy as commander in chief.

“The problem with Congressman Paul is, all the things that Republicans like about him he can’t accomplish, and all the things they’re worried about, he’ll do Day One,” the former senator said.

Paul argued that both Republican and Democrats have corrupted Washington to the point where they disapprove of a simple agenda focused on constitutional principles.

“You know that demonstrates how out of touch the US government and the US Congress is with the American people. Because I’m supporting things that help the American people,” Paul said.

The debate did not finish, though, before Romney and Gingrich had another tart exchange over the role of super PAC advertising in the campaign.

A pro-Romney committee dumped $3 million of negative ads on Gingrich in Iowa, and now a pro-Gingrich group is preparing to spend $1 million on a 27-minute documentary excoriating Romney’s tenure atop Bain Capital.

While the groups are led by supporters of both men, they are not supposed to coordinate with their official campaigns. Nonetheless, both Romney and Gingrich expressed close familiarity with the content being aired for and against them.

“I can say publicly I hope that the super PAC runs an accurate movie about Bain,” Gingrich said with a wry smile on his face. “It will be based on establishment newspapers, like The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Barron’s, Bloomberg News. And I hope that it’s totally accurate, and then people can watch the 27-and-a-half minutes of his career at Bain and decide for themselves.”

Romney himself also strained credibility as he tried to distance himself from the benefits he’s reaped from the Gingrich attack ads.

“With regards to their ads, I haven’t seen them. And, as you know, under the law, I can’t direct their ads,” Romney said.

Yet moments later, he added: “The ad I saw said that you’d been forced out of the speakership. That was correct. It said that you had sat down with Nancy Pelosi and argued for a climate change bill. That was correct. It said that you called Paul Ryan’s plan to Medicare reform a ‘right-wing social engineering’ plan. It said that as part of an investigation, an ethics investigation, that you had to reimburse some $300,000. Those things were all true.”

Romney, still on his pedestal atop the field after a weekend of debating, provided his own coda on the nearly four hours of collective back-and-forth.

“This ain’t beanbag,” he said. “We’re going to come into a campaign, and we’re going to describe the differences between us.”

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.
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