Romney escapes debate intact as his Republican opponents trade barbs

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mitt Romney emerged from Saturday night’s GOP presidential debate largely unscathed and his frontrunner status intact.

The former Massachusetts governor was subject to the first attack of the night but that early fire was quickly overshadowed by testy exchanges between Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich.

It’s been more than three weeks since the Republican presidential candidates have been on stage together. The last time they gathered,

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Gingrich led in the polls and Michele Bachmann was still in the race.

It was a different scenario at Saturday night’s debate, sponsored by ABC News and Yahoo News.

Romney, who virtually tied Santorum in the Iowa caucuses and holds a double-digit lead in the New Hampshire polls, was expected to be a target.

He wasn’t.

There was one early attack.

Santorum, when asked if his comments that the U.S. doesn't need a CEO as president were directed at Romney, replied bluntly: "Yeah, well, of course I was talking about Gov. Romney."

Some of the other candidates got in some shots about about Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital — arguments that echo ones Democrats have made — that was quickly overshadowed by angry exchanges between Paul, Santorum and Gingrich.

Paul, who is second in New Hampshire polls, got plenty of air time to air his views, leading to a multi-round exchange of fire between the contenders for second place. And Romney got to stand back and watch.

The Texas congressman launched his first attack of the evening on Santorum, whom he’s pounded since the former senator has surged in the polls. He reiterated that argument in Saturday night's debate.

Paul, who has called Santorum a "liberal" because of his record on voting for government spending, was asked if he stood by an ad from his campaign calling Santorum "corrupt."

He’s one of "top corrupt individuals because he took so much money from the lobbyists,” Paul replied.

But his argument was interrupted by feedback from his microphone, causing Santorum to quip, "They caught you not telling the truth, Ron."

And while that remark was funny, the former senator also gave a stronger response, attacking Paul's record for supporting earmarks.

"As a senator from Pennsylvania that I had a responsibility to go out there and represent the interests of my state,” he said. “I don't apologize for that any more than you did when you earmarked things and did things when you were a congressman in Texas.”

Gingrich was also critical of Paul. When asked about Paul calling him a "chickenhawk" because he didn't serve in the military, the former speaker said, "Dr. Paul makes a lot of comments. It's part of his style."

But Paul wouldn't back down. "I think people who don't serve when they could and they get three or four or even five deferments, they have no right to send our kids off to war," he said.

Gingrich looked angry and said he resented Paul's remarks.

"Dr. Paul has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false. The fact is, I never asked for deferment. I was married with a child. It was never a question. My father was, in fact, serving in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta at the time he's referring to. I think I have a pretty good idea of what it's like as a family to worry about your father getting killed. And I personally resent the kind of comments and aspersions he routinely makes without accurate information and then just slurs people with," the former speaker said.

Paul injected, "When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids, and I went."

The audience loudly applauded that statement and over the noise Gingrich said, "I wasn't eligible for the draft. I wasn't eligible for the draft."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is not campaigning in New Hampshire before Tuesday’s primary, didn’t get many questions or much airtime.

He did get to speak during the foreign policy section and said he would send troops back to Iraq.

He explained: “The idea that we allow the Iranians to come back into Iraq and take over that country, with all of the treasure, both in blood and money, that we have spent in Iraq, because this president wants to kowtow to his liberal, leftist base and move out those men and women. He could have renegotiated that timeframe.”

Polls show Perry at 1 percent in New Hampshire, tied in last place with Buddy Roemer. He is scheduled to be at Sunday morning’s debate but will head to South Carolina after that.

The night also featured several moments of humor.

Romney was pressed on a hypothetical question of whether he would support a state banning contraception, causing him to snap: "Contraception, it's working just fine. Leave it alone.”


The audience laughed and applauded the remark.

Paul got some laughs when he talked about his standing in the race, noting he came in third in Iowa. “I'm doing pretty well, you know?" he said. "Third wasn't too bad. I wasn't too far behind. And doing pretty well. Catching up on Mitt every single day.”

And Huntsman pushed for laughs but got some groans when he said: “I've been married for 28 years. I have seven kids. Glad we're off the contraception discussion.”

But the former ambassador to China will probably be remembered for speaking Mandarin Chinese in the final moments of the evening.

Romney launched his one attack against Huntsman, telling him: “I'm sorry, governor, you were, the last two years, implementing the policies of this administration in China. The rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country.”

Huntsman came back at Romney with an unusual trump card: His knowledge of Mandarin Chinese.

“It’s important to note, as they say in China,” Huntsman said before uttering a phrase in Chinese that left the audience baffled.

The moderators ended the evening by asking the candidates what they’d be doing on a Saturday night if they weren’t at the debate.

“I'd probably be at the shooting range,” Perry said.

“I'd be watching the college championship basketball game,” Gingrich said. Someone was quick to say: “Football game?”

“I mean, football game,” the former speaker said as the audience laughed.

“I'd be doing the same thing with my family,” Santorum said. “We'd be huddled around, and we'd be watching the championship game.”

Romney agreed: “I'm afraid it's football. I love it.”

Paul had something else in mind: “I'd be home with my family. But if they all went to bed, I'd probably read an economic textbook.”

But Huntsman ended it on a heartfelt note: “I'd be on the phone with my two boys in the United States Navy, because they're a constant reminder of what is great about this nation and awesome about the emerging generation in this country.”

— Josh Lederman and Peter Schroeder contributed