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UPDATE: After going easy on him Saturday night, the Republican candidates stepped up their attacks against Mitt Romney Sunday morning. “They had to be poked, prodded and nudged to do it, but the Republican presidential candidates finally went on the offense” against Romney, writes Yahoo! News’ Chris Moody.
The candidates sharply criticized Romney on his conservative credentials, saying he wasn’t being completely honest about his record and insisting that he wouldn’t stand a chance at beating President Obama. While the former Massachusetts governor was forced to defend himself, there seemed to be little chance that any of the exchanges would hurt Romney’s chances of sailing to victory in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday.
Asserting that Romney would “have a very hard time getting elected,” Newt Gingrich said that “There's a huge difference between a Reagan conservative and somebody who comes out of the Massachusetts culture who essentially has a moderate record.” At one point, he replied to Romney’s insistence that he was not a life-long politician by asking him to “drop a little bit of the pious baloney.”
For his part, Rick Santorum accused Romney of running “to the left of Ted Kennedy.” Romney “wore a wide smile and seemed intent on not losing his cool,” notes the New York Times. At times he couldn’t help it, though, and fired back at his rivals, criticizing politicians who go to Washington and then “stay there and make money as lobbyists.” Although the moments he came under attack “were some of the worst for Romney,” they “just weren’t sustained enough to keep him out of his comfort zone for long or change the governing dynamic,” writes the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza.
On Saturday night, Romney was left unscathed as the other Republican contenders chose to criticize one another rather than the front-runner. Everyone had expected all the candidates to focus on Romney but “his opponents criticized him sporadically and to little effect,” notes the Washington Post. That allowed Romney to mostly remain above the fray and take on the role of front-runner, directing most of his attacks at President Obama. “I don’t want to be critical of the people on this stage,” Romney said.
The sharpest exchange of the night came when Rep. Ron Paul repeated his characterization of Newt Gingrich as a “chicken hawk” for voting in favor of war even though he received a deferment during the Vietnam War.
“Romney came to the debate threatening to run away with the race, and left the stage just as strong,” writes National Journal’s Ron Fournier. “Maybe stronger.”
None of the candidates really broke new ground in Saturday night’s debate except for Gov. Rick Perry, who called for sending U.S. troops back into Iraq immediately, warning that Iran is “going to move back in.” But certainly the weirdest moment of the night came when Jon Huntsman broke into Mandarin to respond to an attack from Romney. “The press corps in the filing center burst into disbelieving laughter, then groped for words to describe the off-kilter moment,” writes Molly Ball in the Atlantic. “There weren't any.”
POST, Saturday, 3:07 p.m.: Mitt Romney’s campaign has been preparing for a long, drawn-out battle. Now it seems to be moving forward with an ambitious strategy to try to all but end the contest by the Florida primary at the end of this month, writes the Washington Post. The campaign insists it is not getting ahead of itself but observers say that if the former governor manages to win the first four states then the nomination will be his.
The big challenge will be South Carolina, where he finished fourth in 2008, yet he now appears to have a strong lead in the state that will vote on Jan. 21. Yet there is still time for the state’s conservative voters to unite around a single candidate and knock Romney out of his perch. That’s why it’s looking like South Carolina “could be the nastiest, costliest content of the season,” writes Reuters, noting that outside groups will be spending lots of money on campaign ads. Indeed, NBC’s Michael Isikoff notes that a pro-Gingrich group is planning to air excerpts of a film that describes Romney’s work for Bain Capital as one that “destroyed the dreams of thousands of Americans.”
South Carolina is seen as so crucial to the nomination battle that many analysts are wondering why Rick Santorum is wasting his time in New Hampshire, where Romney has a comfortable lead, notes Politico. The latest New Hampshire poll shows the former Massachusetts governor with 42 percent of the vote, far ahead Rep. Ron Paul, who has 22 percent.
All eyes will be on Santorum Saturday night as the Republican candidates get together for their first debate in three weeks. McClatchy points out that while in previous debates he has always been off the far side, he will now take center stage after his surge in Iowa. And not just once, but twice since 10 hours after Saturday’s debate, the candidates will meet again.
USA Today publishes a list of the top five things to watch at the pair of debates: How Romney handles attacks, Newt Gingrich’s aggressiveness, Santorum, whether Jon Huntsman gets his moment in the sun, and Ron Paul. The New York Times has a very similar list but also notes that Rick Perry has an opportunity to restart his campaign from the debates if he manages not to make any mistakes.