Democrats, GOP Face Off in New Hampshire The debates show that the presidential primary battles are in flux in both parties. Polls show that Sen. Barack Obama is closing the gap in the state with rival Sen. Hillary Clinton. On the GOP side, Sen. John McCain has continued a surge he began a few weeks ago in New Hampshire.

Democrats, GOP Face Off in New Hampshire

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

There are just two days left until the New Hampshire primary. And as you just heard, the candidates are in a fierce battle for votes there. The debates were held at Saint Anselm College near Manchester and were sponsored by ABC News, WMUR-TV and Facebook.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson has our report.

MARA LIASSON: Both presidential primary battles are in flux. On the Democratic side, polls show that while Barack Obama didn't get a big bounce from his victory in the Iowa caucuses, he is closing the gap with Hillary Clinton. They are now tied in New Hampshire. On the GOP side, John McCain has continued the surge he began a few weeks ago here and he has pulled ahead of Mitt Romney who was defeated in Iowa by Mike Huckabee.

Romney, the former leader in New Hampshire, is now fighting a two-front war. And this new dynamic was on full display last night after Huckabee criticized Romney for failing to support the surge in Iraq.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas; Republican Presidential Candidate): I supported the surge when you didn't. I'm not a person who is out there taking cheap shots at the president. I worked really hard to get him elected. But I'm not running for George Bush's third term. I want to be the president of the United States on my own terms.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Republican Presidential Candidate): I did support the surge, but look, you know, Governor, don't try and characterize my position. Of course, this war has now been…

Mr. HUCKABEE: Which one?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROMNEY: You know we're wise to talk about policies and nothing like personal attacks.

Mr. HUCKABEE: Well, it's not a personal attack.

LIASSON: In New Hampshire, the bigger threat to Romney is John McCain. He won the primary in 2000 and has focused almost exclusively on the state since his campaign ran out of money in the spring. In his commercials, Romney has been hammering McCain for his position on tax cuts and for supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants. McCain responded last night, insisting he never supported amnesty and pointing out that at one time Romney had agreed with him.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): No better authority than Governor Romney believe that it's not amnesty, because two years ago, he was asked, and he said that my plan was, quote, "reasonable and was not amnesty." And for you to describe it as you do in the attack ads, my friend, you can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads, but it still won't be true.

LIASSON: No doubt there will be more attacks coming from all directions. The Republican candidates will continue their argument tonight when they meet again for another debate, their final encounter before Tuesday's primary.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is trying to stage her version of the famous comeback that her husband pulled off here 16 years ago. After coming in third in the Iowa caucuses, behind both John Edwards and Barack Obama, Clinton came to the debate last night, determined to direct more scrutiny toward Obama's record.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Democratic Presidential Candidate): You know, Senator Obama's chair in New Hampshire is a lobbyist. He lobbies for the drug companies.

LIASSON: Clinton also quoted an AP story that said Obama could have a debate with himself because he has changed his position on several issues. John Edwards, describing both himself and Obama as agents of change, jumped in to make common cause against Clinton.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina; Democratic Presidential Candidate): That's not the kind of discussion we should be having. I think that every time this happens, what will occur — every time he speaks out for change, every time I fight for change, the forces of status quo are going to attack every single time. I mean, I didn't hear these kind of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead. Now that she's not, we hear them.

LIASSON: Obama was clearly feeling the boost of momentum from his victory on Thursday night. His goal last night was to appear calm and presidential and to remind voters in New Hampshire that he had just won in Iowa.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): What I think is important that we don't do is to try to distort each other's records as, you know, election day approaches here in New Hampshire. Because what I think the people of America are looking for are folks who are going to be straight about the issues and are going to be interested in solving problems and bringing people together. That's the reason, I think, we did so well in Iowa.

LIASSON: Obama spent the day yesterday, giving speeches to overflow crowds. Senator Clinton held an unusually long town hall meeting taking questions for two hours in an effort to showcase both her depth of knowledge and her approachability. In the debate last night, she was asked about the problems she has to overcome.

Mr. SCOTT SPRADLING (Anchor, WMUR-TV News): What can you say to the voters of New Hampshire, where they seem to like Barack Obama more?

Sen. CLINTON: Well, that hurts my feelings.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SPRADLING: I'm sorry, Senator. I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. CLINTON: But I'll try to go on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. CLINTON: He's very likable, I agree with that. I don't think I'm that bad.

Sen. OBAMA: You're likable enough…

Sen. CLINTON: Thank you.

Sen. OBAMA: …Hillary, no doubt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIASSON: And then, Clinton delivered the ultimate Democratic insult: comparing Obama's likeability to that of George W. Bush.

Sen. CLINTON: You know, in 2000 we, unfortunately, ended up with a president who people said they wanted to have a beer with; who said he wanted to be a uniter, not a divider; who said that he had his intuition and he was going to, you know, really come in to the White House and transform the country. And you know, at least I think there are the majority of Americans who think that was nit the right choice. So I'm offering 35 years of experience making change and the results to show for it.

LIASSON: This was the last Democratic debate before New Hampshire votes and all the Democratic candidates will be holding events practically around the clock until the polls close here on Tuesday night.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Manchester.

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