CONCORD, N.H. — Mitt Romney finally faced the heat of searing campaign fire on Sunday, as his rivals in a presidential debate launched a Hail Mary effort to undercut the front-runner two days before New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.
Newt Gingrich accused him of trading in “pious baloney” and leveling dishonest political attacks against him, while Jon Huntsman charged the former Massachusetts governor with putting party ahead of country.
The NBC News debate in New Hampshire, where Romney is poised to score a wide-margin win on Tuesday, stood in sharp contrast to another debate the night before. The contenders competing for a second-place finish behind Romney waged a war against one another on Saturday, but on Sunday, Romney was enemy No. 1.
Huntsman seemed grounded and at ease in the state where he has staked his entire campaign, and benefited from the expansive airtime granted to him by the moderators.
Santorum, whose triumph in Iowa has given him the spotlight despite a social conservative message that seems out of place in New Hampshire, appeared comfortable in his new position of prominence, relishing the opportunity to make his case on his own terms.
Sparks started flying when Santorum went after Romney’s performance as the governor of neighboring Massachusetts, questioning why he didn’t run for reelection if he had truly been a successful leader.
“Run again? That would be about me,” Romney said.
Interrupting Romney, Santorum turned the tables on Romney and asked if that meant he wouldn’t seek a second term if elected president.
“It’s still my time,” Romney quipped.
“I’m just asking,” Santorum retorted.
More from The Hill
♦ No sign of Romney changing strategy despite eroding support
♦ Gingrich says he didn't ask for military deferral
♦ Santorum says he’d be a voice for all, ‘gay or straight’
♦ Poll: Romney sees drop in support in NH
♦ GOP debate: Huntsman defends serving under Obama
♦ Priebus: Recess appointments 'trampling the Constitution'
♦ Panetta: All options on table for dealing with Iran
A long-winded answer by Romney about how the country would be better served by limited service by politicians in Washington ended with an acknowledgement that he would surely fight for a second term — and a stinging rebuke from Newt Gingrich.
“I realize the red light doesn’t mean anything for you because you’re the front-runner, but can we drop all the pious baloney?” said the former House Speaker. “Just level with the American people. You’ve been running since at least the 1990s.”
The debate audience ate it up, reacting with strident applause.
Also pursuing the no-gloves approach to tussling with Romney was Huntsman, who must place in the top two or three if he hopes to continue his campaign into South Carolina and beyond.
Hours earlier in a Saturday debate about 20 miles away, Romney had criticized Huntsman for serving as U.S. ambassador to China under President Obama — a Democrat. Huntsman missed his chance to defend himself on Saturday, but he didn’t let the opportunity slip by on Sunday.
“He criticized me, while he was out raising money, for serving my country in China. Yes, under a Democrat,” Huntsman said. “I want to be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire. I will always put my country first.”
Romney snapped back that Americans are best served by people who support conservative principles and that the best person to lead the United States out of disarray was someone not associated with the current president.
“This nation is divided because of attitudes like that,” said Huntsman.
Romney and Gingrich also went head-to-head over whose campaign is deploying the dirtiest tactics. Beaten into submission in Iowa by millions of dollars in attack ads from political action committees supporting Romney, Gingrich has vowed to hold Romney accountable in New Hampshire and elsewhere. Although by law, Romney’s super-PAC cannot coordinate its efforts with his campaign, Gingrich maintained that if the former governor wanted the vicious attacks to stop, he could call them off.
“Governor, I wish you would calmly and directly state it is your former staffers running the PAC,” Gingrich said, accusing Romney supporters of ruthlessly distorting his background and record.
Both Romney and Gingrich have former staff members now working for PACs that support them.
“Anything wrong, I’m opposed to,” Romney said, adding that if the PAC’s ads were wrong about Gingrich, he would want them taken down.
“But this ain’t the bean bag,” Romney said, challenging Gingrich’s durability in the contest for the nation’s top office.
Romney also said Gingrich had called him names in public that were “over the top” and unsuited for a presidential campaign.
Paul and Rick Perry sat mostly on the sidelines, struggling to inject themselves into the conversation and to prove their continued relevance in the race.
Challenged by debate moderator David Gregory about whether he could be more effective in the White House than he has been in Congress, where the Texas congressman has only seen one of his bills signed into law over the past three decades, Paul said it was Congress — not he — who had lost its way.
“That demonstrates how much out of touch the U.S. Congress is with the American people,” Paul said, asserting that his advocacy for freedom and civil liberties appealed to Americans across the political spectrum.
Not good enough, charged Santorum, saying nothing “of any import” had made it from Paul’s office onto the books.
“One of the reasons people like Congressman Paul is his economic plan. He’s never been able to accomplish any of that,” Santorum said. “He’s been out there on the margins and really has been unsuccessful at working with anybody to do anything.”
Both Santorum and Gingrich evoked their history in Congress as evidence that despite their steadfast dedication to conservative principles, they could be an effective leader amid divided government.
Gingrich noted his accomplishments working with former Presidents Clinton and Reagan, while Santorum recalled standing shoulder-to-shoulder with former Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).
Perry, who is clinging to his White House ambitions despite a disappointing performance in Iowa and an interlude in Texas where he considered dropping out, had a chance to course-correct his "oops" moment from a previous debate. Many of Perry's critics predicted that moment, when the Texas governor forgot the third federal department he would eliminate as president, would be the nail in the coffin of his campaign.
But asked on Sunday whether it was un-American for citizens to feel relieved by the help offered to them by government, Perry pivoted back to the components of government he argues are burdening Americans.
"I will tell you, it would be those bureaucrats at the Department of Commerce and — and Energy and Education that we're going to do away with," Perry said.
The Republican hopefuls also offered their most personal and candid accounts of their view of gay rights of any of the debates to date — and in a state where gay marriage is legal.
Asked how they would advocate for gays and lesbians, both Romney and Santorum managed to give compelling and seemingly nonjudgmental answers while also holding down their line against same-sex marriage.
Santorum, who has a prickly relationship with the gay community and has made his opposition to gay marriage a staple of his campaign despite the national focus on economic issues, said he would be a voice for ensuring all Americans are treated with dignity, respect and equal opportunity.
But his most poignant observation came when asked what he would do if his son were to confess to him that he was gay.
“I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it, and I would do everything I could to be as good a father to him as possible,” Santorum said.
Romney’s initial response was to point out that he appointed an openly gay person to his Cabinet in Massachusetts — an argument that could strike some gay-rights supporters as belittling. But Romney said he had made it clear as governor that while he was opposed to gay marriage, he was also opposed to discrimination.
Asked when he last took a stand for gay rights, Romney had two words: “Right now.”