Romney's Unscathed After Back-To-Back N.H. Debates

The New Hampshire primary is Tuesday, and it is the second contest of the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Polls show Mitt Romney is still out front but his lead is shrinking. Ron Paul is in second place.

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep in Manchester, New Hampshire. Drivers rolled past a vivid site on the road leading into one of last weekend's presidential debates. Ron Paul's campaign had put up yard signs. Not just a few; a whole row of them. Nearby stood a cluster of Jon Huntsman signs and more for Newt Gingrich. Beyond that, Mitt Romney's campaign planted what seemed like a hundred blue and white signs in a row. And then, just when the blast of color seemed over, came one more sign for Rick Santorum.

Romney's leading here. But over the weekend his rivals attacked him from all sides. And let's start our coverage with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Give a hoot for Newt.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Jon Huntsman.

Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Outside St. Anselm's College in Manchester Saturday night, there were dueling clumps of screaming, sign-waving supporters. Inside the debate hall, Mitt Romney was bracing for an all-out assault from his rivals. But it never happened, as his opponents chose to fight mostly among themselves. Here's an exchange between Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, who are competing to be the conservative alternative to Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

RON PAUL: But the big difference between the way I voted and the way the senator voted is I always voted against the spending. I voted against all the spending. There's only been a couple of appropriations bill I've voted for in the past, what, 24, 26 years I've been in Washington. So you're a big spender. That's all there is to it. You're a big government conservative.

RICK SANTORUM: I am not a libertarian, Ron. I agree with you. You vote against everything. I don't vote against everything. I do vote for some spending. I do think government has a role to play, particularly in defense.

LIASSON: By Sunday morning, the strategy had shifted, as if the candidates finally realized that they only had one day left to try and stop Romney, who appears poised to roll from one early state victory to another.

Newt Gingrich pounced after Romney gave this explanation for why he decided not to run for re-election as governor of Massachusetts.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: Run again? That would be about me. I was trying to help the get the state in as best shape as I possibly could.

LIASSON: As Romney went on and on, Newt saw an opening.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

NEWT GINGRICH: Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney? The fact is, you ran in '94 and lost. That's why you weren't serving in the Senate with Rick Santorum. The fact is, you had a very bad re-election rating. You dropped out of office. You had been out of state for something like 200 days preparing to run for president. You didn't have this interlude of citizenship while you thought about what to do. You were running for president while you were governor.

LIASSON: The personal animosity between the two men was palpable. Gingrich has been seething ever since a super-PAC supporting Romney aired $3.5 million of attack ads against him in Iowa. When the moderator invited Gingrich to restate to Romney's face his charge that Romney was a liar, Gingrich looked straight at his opponent.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

GINGRICH: Governor, I wish you would calmly and directly state it is your former staff running the PAC. It is your millionaire friends giving to the PAC, and you know some of the ads aren't true. Just say that, straightforward.

LIASSON: Romney was as usual prepared, and he had a ready answer, repeating all the charges made about Gingrich in the super-PAC ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROMNEY: Anything wrong I'm opposed to. But, you know, this ain't the bean bag. We're going to come into a campaign; we're going to describe the differences between us. But I do think – but I do think the rhetoric, Mr. Speaker, I think was a little over the top.

GINGRICH: You think my rhetoric was over the top, but your ads were totally reasonable? I just want to understand...

ROMNEY: Again...

GINGRICH: I've taken the governor's advice.

ROMNEY: Mr. Speaker?

LIASSON: Although the other candidates managed to remind voters about all the things they may not like about Mitt Romney, none of the attacks rattled him or made him loose his cool.

Rick Perry, who entered the race in first place and then stumbled out of the gate, found a graceful way to poke fun at the moment his campaign ran aground: his famous brain freeze at a debate in Michigan when he couldn't remember the three federal agencies he wanted to eliminate.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

RICK PERRY: Well, let me answer the question that you asked earlier: What are the three areas that you would make some reductions that people would feel some pain? And I will tell you it would be those bureaucrats at the Department of Commerce and Energy and Education that we're going to do away with.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: Perry, who's never been able to climb back out of single digits since that oops moment, left New Hampshire right after the debate to make a last stand in South Carolina. The rest of the candidates are spending one last day here hunting for votes.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Manchester, New Hampshire.

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