Sparks flew during the Republican presidential debate in Concord, N.H., today as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, the main challengers to front-runner Mitt Romney, went after him hard.
The punches began at the opening bell of the “Meet the Press” Facebook debate, after NBC’s David Gregory asked Romney’s opponents why he’s not qualified to be president.
Gregory’s question was much more pointed than those posed during the lethargic ABC debate Saturday night, which pundits and other political observers are criticizing as aimless and often irrelevant. The debates are the final face-to-face encounters for the candidates before the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.
And it brought a stern response from the first candidate to answer, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
“What Republicans have to ask is who's most likely to survive against the $1 billion dollar campaign the Obama team is gonna run?” Gingrich said. “I think that a bold Reagan conservative with a very strong economic plan is a lot more likely to succeed in that campaign than a relatively timid Massachusetts moderate.”
Gingrich attacked Romney on jobs. “Massachusetts was fourth from the bottom in job creation under Gov. Romney. I — we — created 11 million jobs while I was speaker, and I worked with President Reagan in the entire recovery of the 1980s.”
Romney’s moderate record means he “will have a very hard time in a debate with president,” Gingrich said. He said Romney’s not unelectable. “But I do think the bigger the contrast . . . the harder it is for that $1 billion campaign to smear his way back into office.”
Romney defended his record as a conservative, noting he has been endorsed by conservative Govs. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Chris Christie of New Jersey.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum wasn’t impressed.
“If his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts, why didn't he run for re-election?” Santorum said. “You didn't want to even stand before the people of Massachusetts and run on your record . . . Why did you bail out? The bottom line is I go and fight the fight . . . We want someone who's gonna stand up and fight for the conservative principles, not bail out and not run to the left of Ted Kennedy.”
Romney’s defense was that he accomplished his mission in Massachusetts and wanted to return to his true calling: business. “For me, politics is not a career,” he said. “For me, my career was being in business.”
Romney also inisisted: "Politics is not my career. My life's passion has been my family, my faith, my country."
Gingrich wasn’t convinced, or impressed, firing back: “Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney? The fact is you ran in '94 and lost [a senatorial race to Democrat Edward Kennedy]. That's why you weren't serving in the Senate . . . You've been running consistently for years and years and years. So this idea that suddenly citizenship showed up in your mind, just level with the American people.”
After that opening brouhaha, the debate focused mostly on policy issues until the end.
At that point Gingrich, went after Romney for the attack ads in Iowa directed at Gingrich that came from a Super PAC backing Romney. There was “virtually nothing accurate in 30 seconds,” Gingrich said. “Governor, I wish you would calmly and directly state that it is your former staff running the PAC, it is your millionaire friends giving to the PAC, and you know some of the ads are not true. Just say that, straightforward.”
Romney acknowledged that the Super PAC is run by people who support him. But, “under the law, I can’t direct their ads,” he said.
“If there was something related to abortion that it said that was wrong, I hope they pull it out. Anything wrong, I’m opposed to. But you know, this ain’t beanbag.”
After initially indicating he didn’t know what was in the ads, Romney said they were accurate in stating that Gingrich was forced out of his House speakership, cooperated with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on climate change, criticized House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s entitlement reform plan as social engineering, and was the subject of a House ethics investigation.
Furthermore, Romney hit Gingrich for using “over-the-top” rhetoric in criticizing him.
“You think my rhetoric was over the top, but your ads were totally reasonable?” Gingrich replied.
Earlier in the debate, Romney had an interesting line that he may use to counter charges that he has flip-flopped his policy views over the years. “I may be more conserve as time goes on,” he said.
At one point, Santorum took the fight to Texas Rep. Ron Paul, as the former Pennsylvania senator seeks to establish himself as the lone challenger to Romney. Paul “has never passed anything of importance,” Santorum said. Only one bill sponsored by Paul has become law, according to NBC’s Gregory.
Paul has no track record of being able to work with others to achieve his economic goals, Santorum said. “The problem is as commander in chief, he can pull all our troops out from overseas,” Santorum said. “The problem with Congressman Paul is that all the things Republicans like about him, he can’t accomplish, and all the things they’re worried about, he’d do day one.”
Paul had one line that won’t exactly endear him to conservatives. “Republican conservatives aren’t all that well known for protecting privacy and personal liberties,” he said.
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