CONCORD, N.H. — Front-runner Mitt Romney came under withering attacks in a debate this morning, as his rivals dropped their previously cordial tone in an attempt to stop his momentum and prevent him from quickly locking up the nomination.
Newt Gingrich demanded that Romney drop his “pious baloney” by claiming that he was not a career politician. Rick Santorum asked why Romney didn’t run for reelection, if he was such an effective governor. Jon Huntsman said Romney’s partisan attitude was dividing the country.
At one point, Gingrich even scolded Romney for not abiding by the established time limits.
“Mitt, I realize the red light doesn’t mean anything to you because you’re the frontrunner,” the former House speaker said in the 90-minute debate on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” which opened with a series of testy exchanges but later became more subdued.
“If his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts, why didn’t you run for reelection?” Santorum asked. “If it was that great, why did you bail out?”
Santorum then criticized Romney for moderate stances he took while running against Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 1994.
“He wouldn’t stand for conservative principles, he ran from Ronald Reagan, and he said he was going to be to the left of Ted Kennedy on gay rights, on abortion, on a whole host of other issues,” Santorum said.
Romney sought to downplay the criticism, but seemed more uncomfortable than he did in previous debates.
The debate, which followed another one on Saturday night in Manchester, marked the last opportunity for the candidates to speak to a national audience before Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire. Romney’s rivals have all been seeking to emerge as his most credible challenger, by attacking him from the right and by labeling him untrustworthy.
Early on, they focused on his record as a politician to undercut the argument that he’s a political outsider. Romney ran for US Senate in 1994, governor of Massachusetts in 2002, and president in 2008. But he painted himself as a businessman with only a fleeting interest in politics.
“I went to Massachusetts to make a difference. I didn’t go to begin a political career, running time and time again,” Romney said. “Run again? That would be about me. I was trying to get the state in the best shape I could.”
Santorum seemed to scoff at that assertion, prompting Romney to stop and say, “You’ve got a surprised look on your face.”
“This for me, politics, is not a career,” Romney insisted. “For me, my career was being in business, and starting a business and making it successful. My life’s passion has been my family, my faith, and my country.”
Romney said he never thought he’d beat Kennedy in 1994, and that he should be given credit for taking on the liberal icon.
“I told my partners in my firm, I’ll be back in six months, don’t take my chair,” Romney said. “I went in and gave it a real battle. I was happy he had to take a mortgage out on his house to ultimately defeat me.”
That comment prompted Gingrich, who has previously chided moderators for trying to sow differences between Republicans, to lace into Romney.
“Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?” Gingrich said. “You were running for president while you were governor, you went all over the country, you were out of state consistently… you happen to lose to McCain. And you had lost to Kennedy. Now you’re back running.”
Gingrich also mocked Romney’s recent stump speech, in which Romney argues that he is a career businessman with a patriotic duty to serve his country in the White House.
“You’ve been running consistently for years and years and years,” Gingrich said. “This idea that suddenly citizenship showed up in your mind — just level with the American people. You’ve been run since at least the 1990s.”
Gingrich also said that Romney would have a hard time beating President Obama if he wins the nomination.
The candidates were at times more aggressive than during the ABC debate on Saturday night, but there were also long stretches were Romney, despite his wide lead in New Hampshire and surprising lead in South Carolina, went unchallenged.
Romney has been adept in the debates at not allowing himself to get dragged into conflict and parrying most of the charges against him. He’s also benefitted by the squabbling among his rivals.
His rivals may be planning to go after Romney on the airwaves. A group of Gingrich supporters is airing a documentary in the battleground state of South Carolina that attacks Romney’s record at Bain and calls Romney a “predator” for some of the investments the firm made. Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is donating $5 million to the cause, perhaps a signal that the anti-Romney forces could begin to mobilize.
Gingrich, who was bombarded by negative ads in Iowa run by a Super PAC of Romney supporters, accused the former Massachusetts governor of running an unfair campaign.
“I think you ought to have fact-based campaigns to talk about the records,” Gingrich said. “Governor, I wish you would calmly and directly state it is your former staff working on the PAC, it is your millionaire friends giving to the PAC, and your…ads are untrue.”
“Of course its former staff of mine, and of course its people who support me,” Romney said. “They wouldn’t be putting money to a PAC that supports me if they weren’t people who support me.”
Romney initially claimed to have not watched the ads run by the Super PAC supporting him, but then proceeded to describe one of them from memory.
“The ad I saw, it said that you’d been forced out of the speakership. That’s correct,” Romney said. “It said you sat down with Nancy Pelosi and argued for a climate change bill. That’s correct….Anything wrong, I’m opposed to. But you know, this ain’t the bean bag. We’re going to come into a campaign and describe the differences.”
Gingrich, too, contended that he hadn’t seen the lengthy documentary on Bain that was put together by a Super PAC of his supporters, but urged people to watch it.
“I hope it’s totally accurate,” he said. “People can watch the 27:30 minutes on his career at Bain and decide for themselves.”
Ron Paul who had been ignored for long stretches, was challenged by Santorum, who argued that the Texas congressman, despite his many years in Washington, has failed to translate his conservative principles into actual laws.
“The serious issue with Congressman Paul here is, you’re right, he’s never really passed anything of any importance,” Santorum said. “He has no track record of being able to work together. He’s been out there on the margins.”
Paul said his legislation hasn’t passed but because of a recalcitrant Congress, not for lack of effort.
“You know, that demonstrates how much 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,” he said. “That’s the disgust that people have because they keep growing government, whether it’s Republicans in charge or the Democrats in charge.”
Texas Governor Rick Perry was sidelined again, as he was last night, but sought to appeal to the party’s conservative base — particularly as the election turns to South Carolina starting Wednesday. He labeled President Obama a “socialist” and said the GOP needs to make an outright appeal to the Tea Party movement.
Huntsman, who was ambassador to China under the Obama administration, tweaked Romney for being critical of that service, which he likened to military service.
“I was criticized last night by Governor Romney for putting my country first,” said Huntsman, who is hoping to appeal to moderates and independents in New Hampshire. “He criticized me while he was out raising money for serving my country in China. Yes, under a Democrat. Like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They’re not asking who-- what political affiliation the president is.”
“I don’t disrespect your decision to do that,” Romney said. “I just think it’s — most likely that 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.”
“This nation is divided…because of attitudes like that,” Huntsman retorted. “The American people are tired of the partisan division.”