Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney fended off attacks on his business record on Saturday and sailed through a high-stakes debate for Republic Party presidential hopefuls that his rivals used to jockey for position as his conservative alternative in the race for the White House.
Romney received a major break when his main rivals stopped short of going all-out negative against him and instead squabbled among themselves.
That leaves Romney in a strong position in New Hampshire, where polls show him winning the primary handily tomorrow. That would put more pressure on his rivals to try to stop him at the next contest in South Carolina, where he also has a small lead.
Looking cool and confident, Romney repeatedly positioned himself above the fray. He stuck to lines from his campaign stump speech and trained fire on the man he wants to replace in November’s election, US President Barack Obama.
“I don’t want to be critical of the people on this stage,” Romney said at the first of two back-to-back debates that represent the last chance to sway large numbers of voters before New Hampshire votes in its Republican primary tomorrow.
A similar performance at a second debate in Concord scheduled for yesterday was likely to help him close the deal in New Hampshire and put him in a strong -position in South Carolina on Jan. 21, where a victory could give him a virtual lock on the Republican presidential nomination.
For the most part the debate was about the battle for second place in New Hampshire and for the conservative vote in South -Carolina, where Romney’s rivals hope to slow him down.
To that end, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who soared as the conservative alternative to Romney when he came in a close second in Iowa’s caucuses last week, might have helped himself with conservative voters.
Taking center stage for the first time after serving as a second-tier candidate all year, Santorum displayed a wide range of policy views and stuck to his opposition to gay rights and the US Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe versus Wade decision that legalized abortion.
“I am for overturning Roe versus Wade. I do not believe that we have a right in this country, in the Constitution, to take a human life — I don’t think our founders envisioned that,” Santorum said.
Libertarian US Representative Ron Paul, hoping to thwart Santorum’s rise and hang on to second place in New Hampshire, tried to raise doubts about Santorum’s conservative credentials by pointing toward his predilection for securing massive amounts of government aid for his home state.
Santorum has come under scrutiny for a long history of obtaining taxpayer dollars for Pennsylvania for what critics call wasteful projects like US$500,000 for a polar bear exhibit at the Pittsburgh zoo.
Former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who skipped Iowa to focus on New Hampshire, accused Romney of trying to instigate a trade war with China with frequent salvos over China’s currency policies.
Huntsman moved into second place in New Hampshire in a poll published on Saturday and needs a big performance to score a breakthrough.
Romney reminded viewers that Huntsman had served in China under Obama.
“I’m sorry, governor, you were, the last two years, implementing the policies of this administration in China. The rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president from being put forward,” Romney said.