Five Republican presidential candidates squared off for their last debate before New Hampshire voters go to the polls on Tuesday.
At the Fox News forum Sunday night, the state's former front-runner, Mitt Romney, fought back against his two most threatening rivals — John McCain and Mike Huckabee.
The Republicans sparred on taxes, spending and — a buzzword of this year's campaign — change.
Romney Attacks Rivals
Romney was on the offensive Sunday night after being pounded by his rivals for being a flip-flopper in a debate on Saturday night. He attacked both McCain and Huckabee on a subject close to the hearts of the state's Republicans — taxes.
Romney pointed out that McCain was one of two Republican senators who had voted against the Bush tax cuts.
But McCain responded by saying that he has done other things to save U.S. taxpayers' money.
"Look, ask Jack Abramoff, who's in prison today — a guy who was a corrupt lobbyist — and his friends if I haven't cut spending," McCain said. "Ask the Air Force and Boeing, where I saved $2 billion ... by fighting against a bogus Air Force tanker deal. I have a record of saving billions for the American taxpayers."
McCain is leading Romney in the polls in New Hampshire. If McCain wins the New Hampshire primary, Romney will have been twice denied early state victories.
The man who beat Romney in Iowa, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, is a distant third in the New Hampshire polls after a solid win in the Iowa caucuses. Romney also sparred with Huckabee on taxes.
Huckabee's rise has sent shudders through the Republican Party establishment. His anti-Wall Street populism sometimes makes him sound like a Republican class warrior. On the campaign trail, he often says people would rather elect someone who reminds them of the guy they work with — not the guy who laid them off.
"When people sit around their dinner tables at night, they feel the effect of $3-a-gallon gasoline. They feel the effect of double digit inflation on their health care costs. They're working two jobs, and they're still not getting a great deal ahead from where they were the year before," Huckabee said. "If that's populism, then I'm guilty, because I think if you understand the struggle of a lot of American families, our party had better wake up to that. If we don't, we're going to lose."
Since Huckabee's win in Iowa last week, Romney has retooled his message. He says voters want change, and that he is an outsider who can shake things up in Washington, D.C. He says McCain has been in Washington too long.
"Washington needs fundamental top-to-bottom change," Romney says. "Just sending the same people to Washington, but in different chairs, is not going to result in a different outcome."
It's unclear whether the Washington insider label will stick to the maverick McCain, who has been a thorn in the side of the Republican establishment for years.
"I know that I have been an agent of change," McCain says. "I'm proud to have been one of those who played a key role in bringing about one of the most important changes in recent years and that was the change in strategy from a failing strategy in Iraq pursued by Secretary Rumsfeld, which was needlessly causing the sacrifice of our most precious American treasure," McCain says. "I don't know of a better change than saving American lives."
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani also participated in the debate. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas were excluded because Fox invited only candidates who had reached double digits in national polls.
Don't be fooled by the pretty pictures of campaign rallies in New Hampshire.
Sure, you can be mesmerized by the banners and balloons and the sing-song cadence of the candidates. But none of that gets people to the polls on primary day.
Voters in New Hampshire need the personal touch. The phone call, the handshake, the knock on the door. Every campaign has compiled a list of the people who are likely to support their candidate. The names are culled from events and Internet lists and secret marketing databases. Even in these high-tech days of voter profiling and targeted e-mail, there's no better way to reach out to those people than by standing on their front stoop.
I went out with video producer David Gilkey to learn the art of street-level politics, and it wasn't hard to find the experts. On just about every cold sidewalk in New Hampshire is someone with a clipboard, carrying campaign literature and peering up at house numbers.
We chose to tag along with two volunteers from the John Edwards campaign as they knocked on doors in Portsmouth, but we could have picked any campaign, any town. We ran into canvassers for Bill Richardson and Barack Obama. I saw a team of women with Hillary Clinton signs heading up the next street. It's crowded with true believers out there.
In the end, we found that there are only a few tricks you need to learn to do this job. Wear sturdy shoes and two pairs of socks. Don't stand too close to the door when it opens. And be relentlessly upbeat. The guys we were out with never argued with voters; they just asked some gentle questions and reminded them to vote on Tuesday. But that may be enough. Political operatives believe that you can increase the likelihood that people will vote for a candidate by investing those voters in a campaign. Hand them buttons. Provide lawn signs. And most effectively, send a neighbor over to ask them if they are committed to vote for the candidate. Come Election Day, the voter won't want to disappoint the team.
Or that's the theory anyway. On the other side of the door, the constant stream of phone calls and door-knocks can drive a voter nuts. Even though we got to the front porch of Melissa Costa by 11 a.m., she had already received three campaign calls and two personal visits. She admitted that sometimes she just turns her hearing aid off and goes upstairs to avoid the politics. But most of the time, she opens the door and lets the volunteers give it their best shot.