Romney’s private sector record cross-examined in NH Republican debate

MANCHESTER, N.H. — The Republican presidential candidates took turns interrogating Mitt Romney’s record creating private-sector jobs at the start of Saturday’s ABC News debate, accentuating the top-dog status Romney has secured coming out of his narrow win in the Iowa caucuses.

Rick Santorum, on the stage for the first time after coming within eight votes of besting Romney in Iowa, was given the first opportunity to undercut Romney. Pounding his message that Americans need a leader and not a corporate manager, Santorum said Romney’s business experience didn’t put him in a strong position to cure what is ailing the U.S. economy.

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“You can’t direct members of Congress or members of the Senate as to how you do things,” Santorum said. “You’ve got to lead and inspire.”

Santorum’s denunciation was quickly followed by Newt Gingrich, who has made no secret of his fury toward Romney after a super PAC backing the former Massachusetts governor spent millions in Iowa pummeling Gingrich and knocking him down to fourth place.

“I’m very much for free enterprise,” Gingrich said. “I’m not nearly as enamored of a Wall Street model where you can flip companies, you can go in and have leveraged buyouts.”

Gingrich’s remarks fortified attacks that he and others have levied at Romney’s career with Bain Capital, a private equity firm that overhauled at-risk companies, sometimes laying off workers or shuttering facilities to return profitability.

But the attack dovetailed with almost complete uniformity to the message pushed by Democrats and President Obama’s reelection campaign as they work to ruffle the candidate they see as the biggest threat to a second Obama term.

“I’m very proud of the fact that the two enterprises I led were quite successful,” Romney said, reiterating his claim that his work with companies through Bain Capital was responsible for creating 100,000 jobs —  a claim that Democrats have questioned repeatedly.

Most striking was the relative mildness of the attacks on Romney coming out of the gate. With Romney expected to win New Hampshire by a wide margin and potentially lock up the GOP nomination within weeks, observers expected candidates would mince no words assaulting Romney.

“I think it’s fair for the people of this nation to have a conversation about one’s record,” said Jon Huntsman, whose entire campaign rests on a solid performance in New Hampshire. “I also have private-sector experience. I combine a little but of what Rick Santorum talked about with what Mitt Romney has.”