GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — The Republican presidential candidates squabbled over spending, leadership, national security and military service here Saturday night, with Rick Santorum thrown on the defensive over his record in Congress and front-runner Mitt Romney gliding largely unscathed through the forum.
Romney and Santorum clashed early over what attributes would make the better president. Santorum charged that the nation doesn’t need a CEO as president — a knock on Romney’s private-sector experience.
“The commander in chief of this country isn’t a CEO. It’s someone who has to lead,” he said. “Being the president is not a CEO. You can’t direct .U.S. members of Congress and members of the Senate as to how you do things. You’ve got to lead and inspire.”
But Romney countered that Santorum lacks the kind of real-world experience needed to turn around the economy. “I think people who spend their life in Washington don’t understand what happens out in the real economy,” he said. “They think that people who start businesses are just managers. . . . My experience is in leadership.”
Romney defended his work in the private sector against charges that Bain Capital engaged in buying and selling companies that resulted in substantial layoffs of workers while he and his partners made millions.
The debate failed to live up to expectations that Romney’s rivals would use it to blunt his momentum. The former Massachusetts governor is cruising toward victory in Tuesday’s primary, a win that could put him in an even stronger position to capture his party’s nomination.
Instead, the debate ranged widely across subjects, and some of the sharpest exchanges involved other candidates.
The most electric moment came when Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) and former House speaker Newt Gingrich clashed over Paul’s earlier comment that Gingrich was a “chicken hawk” for taking deferments instead of serving in the military during the Vietnam War while advocating for military action today.
Gingrich upbraided Paul. “Dr. Paul has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false,” he said. “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.”
Paul responded icily, “When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids, and I went.”
Paul went after Santorum as an insincere conservative, calling him a “big-government, big-spending” member of Congress and someone who has voted for earmarks repeatedly. “He preached to the fact he wanted a balanced-budget amendment but voted to raise the debt five times. So he is a big-government person.”
Santorum rejected a charge contained in a TV ad aired by Paul that called him corrupt, calling it “a ridiculous charge.” Responding to the complaint that he had raised the debt ceiling, he said: “I’m a conservative. I’m not a libertarian. I believe in some government. I do believe that government has — that as a senator from Pennsylvania that I had a responsibility to go out there and represent the interests of my state.”
Saturday’s debate was the 14th in the Republican campaign. The debate at St. Anselm College was sponsored by ABC News, WMUR-TV of New Hampshire and Yahoo News. Six candidates participated: Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Paul finished third in the Iowa caucuses Tuesday. Perry finished fifth and sent signals that he might quit the race, only to declare his intention of competing hard in South Carolina and participating in the debates here in New Hampshire. Huntsman, who skipped Iowa, has staked his candidacy on a surprise showing here Tuesday and has said he will “exceed market expectations.”
Saturday’s debate will be followed by an unusual Sunday morning forum in a special edition of NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The New Hampshire Union Leader and Facebook will co-sponsor that debate.
Romney got into an exchange with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, one of the moderators, over whether states have the constitutional right to ban contraception. Romney fired back that it was an “unusual topic” to raise, given that no states are asking to do so. The two sparred over the issues until Romney brought it to a close with this comment: “Contraception? It’s working just fine — just leave it alone.”
The back-to-back debates will test the stamina of a field of candidates already bone tired from constant campaigning. They provide Santorum and other Romney rivals the chance to make the case against him, as well a way for Romney to lock down his support in a state he lost four years ago. But the two forums also left little margin for error for any candidate who made a mistake, given the limited time until the voting starts Tuesday.
All recent polls show Romney with a double-digit lead in New Hampshire, but his campaign team is mindful that sentiment can shift quickly in the final days of campaigning here. They vowed no letdown in their efforts to turn out their supporters.
Before the debate, Romney warned his supporters Saturday against complacency in light of polls showing him with a healthy lead here in New Hampshire.
Santorum, looking to translate his near-victory in Iowa into a solid second-place finish here Tuesday, kept up his punishing pace of appearances Saturday. As others rested before the debate, he campaigned into the late afternoon, sharply criticizing Romney and dismissing questions about whether he would have a more difficult time defeating President Obama than Romney.
“I ran in 1994, so did” Romney, Santorum said in a raspy voice before an appearance at a packed barn in Hollis, N.H. “He ran to the left of Ted Kennedy, and he lost. I ran as a strong conservative, a conviction conservative, and I was able to win. . . . If you’re looking for someone who can win, then look at the track record of a winner. I’ve run five times. I’ve won four. Mitt Romney’s run three times, he’s lost twice, and the one time he [won], he ran as a liberal, and he didn’t run for reelection because he couldn’t win.”
Santorum got a potential boost in his effort to consolidate conservative support with news that he had won the endorsement of Gary Bauer, a prominent social conservative and chairman of the Campaign for Working Families.
Gingrich spoke at a World War II museum that included a Pershing tank on display. He began with a joke about Michael S. Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor who as the 1998 Democratic nominee was ridiculed for being photographed in a tank with an oversize helmet. “It’s just a reminder that governors of Massachusetts don’t always make good presidential candidates.”
Romney was out early Saturday for a rally in Derry. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, two of a number of prominent surrogates lined up to campaign with him over the weekend, joined him, as did his wife, Ann, and other members of his family.
Haley implored the crowd to give Romney “a big win” Tuesday to send him to South Carolina with fresh momentum. “You take care of him here in New Hampshire,” she said. “I’ll take care of him in South Carolina. And let him take care of us when he gets to the White House.”
Romney appeared buoyant but asked his supporters to take nothing for granted. “Let me tell you,” he said, “don’t get too confident with those poll numbers. I’ve watched polls come and go. Things change very quickly. It’s very fluid. I need to make sure you guys get your friends to go out, and you vote, as well.”
It was an unusual plea from the former Massachusetts governor, who at campaign events sometimes forgets to even ask people for their votes, let alone urge them to rally their friends. But it was in keeping with the furious push his campaign is making this weekend to fire up his supporters in this state whose voters historically break in the final hours.
Washington Post Staff writers Aaron Blake, Amy Gardner, Rosalind S. Helderman and Felicia Somnez contributed to this report.
MORE FROM THE WASHINGTON POST: