Rivals unleash debate fire against favorite Romney


Reuters

CONCORD, New Hampshire — U.S. Republican front-runner Mitt Romney emerged on Sunday from back-to-back debates in New Hampshire a bit dinged but not seriously dented as rivals stepped up attacks to slow his march toward the presidential nomination. Two days before voters in the small New England state head to the polls for the first 2012 primary election, Romney took heat on a number of topics: his record as governor of neighboring Massachusetts, the attack ads run by an outside group on his behalf and a suggestion he would wither in the face of attacks from Democratic President Barack Obama. One by one, the contenders lined up to fire on the former venture capitalist in a surprisingly heated debate after they largely left Romney alone Saturday night. But there was little to suggest he had suffered any setback in New Hampshire, where he is heavily favored to win.

In the most tumultuous nominating process in the Republican camp in decades, it is hard to know what voters want — a flagbearer of conservative values or a serious challenge to a vulnerable incumbent trying to revive the sagging U.S. economy. “Romney was dinged in the second debate, but not seriously wounded,” said Larry Sabato, political analyst at the University of Virginia. “Basically, the candidates firmed up their own individual base but I don’t think they took much away from Romney either in terms of Republicans or independents.” The online exchange InTrade, which takes bets on the outcomes of events such as elections, now shows Romney with an 83-percent chance of winning the Republican nomination to run against Obama in the fall. And yet, the race for second place continued to hold the Republican field in suspense, with Santorum, libertarian congressman Ron Paul, former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman all vying for the spot. Suffolk University Poll A New Hampshire tracking poll from Suffolk University in nearby Boston could breath fresh life into his rivals: It found his standing in his state slipping for the fourth straight day, though still enjoying a wide lead. The survey gave Romney 35 percent support, down from 43 percent last Tuesday, well above Paul’s second-place 20 percent, while former U.S. envoy to China Jon Huntsman gained to 11 percent, and Gingrich sits at 9 percent. The poll found Santorum has fallen to eight percent — a slide pollsters have blamed on his virulent criticisms of gay rights in independent-minded New Hampshire — while Perry was at one percent. ‘Love him just as much’ Santorum, whose lackluster campaign caught fire in Iowa and who has pinned hopes more on the next contest in South Carolina, came out punching at Romney, even though he endorsed Romney in his 2008 run for the party’s nomination. “If his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts, why didn’t he run for re-election,” said Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. Santorum Sunday worked to soften an angry image shaped by his past comparisons of homosexuality to bestiality and by his fierce opposition to gay marriage and gay adoptions, saying “every person in America, gay or straight” should be treated with respect. Asked what he would do if he had a son tell him he was gay, the former senator from Pennsylvania replied: “I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it. And I would try to do everything I can to be as good a father to him.” Santorum is running hard on his socially conservative credentials and used the spotlight again on Sunday to reinforce that message.

Santorum “has accepted the fact that he’s going to lose New Hampshire, maybe badly. He spoke more to South Carolina than to New Hampshire,” Sabato said.