MANCHESTER, N.H. — Rep. Ron Paul fought to protect his top-tier status in the Republican presidential race during Saturday night's debate, ripping into the records of his closest rivals and putting up a feisty defense of his limited government philosophy.
By the time the night was over, the 12-term Texas Congressman had assailed former Sen. Rick Santorum as big spender and refused to back away from his characterization of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich as a "chicken hawk" — all the while arguing that the nation's drug laws unjustly affect blacks and telling the audience that he'd be reading an "economic textbook" if he wasn't spending the night on the debate stage.
With three days left before New Hampshire's first-in-the nation primary, the event was the first of back-to-back debates that are giving the candidates a late-innings opportunity to woo voters here and try to slow the momentum of Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor scraped out a thin victory over Mr. Santorum in the Iowa caucuses and holds a significant lead in Granite State polls.
But the debate here on Saturday quickly morphed into a battle for second place, largely due to the combative approach of Mr. Paul, who finished third in the Iowa caucuses and is running second here in a realclearpolitics.com average of polls.
Mr. Paul, Mr. Santorum, Mr. Gingrich and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman have all campaigned here this week in an attempt to convince voters they are the best alternative to Mr. Romney.
The jury is still out on whether the Republican establishment would be willing to support Mr. Paul, thanks to his foreign policy views and libertarian philosophy.
Whatever the case, the 76-year-old came out firing Saturday night, charging Mr. Santorum with selling out basic conservative principles when, as a member of Congress, he supported five increases in the nation's borrowing limit, the No Child Left Behind law that increased the size of the Department of Education and the Medicare Part D program, which has since cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.
"You're a big spender; that's all there is to it. You're a big-government conservative," Mr. Paul told Mr. Santorum, later adding that "to say you're a conservative, I think, is a stretch. But you've convinced a lot of people of it, so somebody has to point out your record."
Mr. Santorum countered that he doesn't share Mr. Paul's brand of libertarianism, so he has supported spending bills and believes there is a role for the federal government to play in society. He also said that his record is "actually pretty darn good," arguing that he's advocated for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, carried the bill that led to welfare reform and fought to link spending cuts with debt limit increases.
"When the government runs up a tab and you don't have the money no — no longer to pay, then you have to increase the debt ceiling. But every time we tried to — we tried to tie it with reducing spending," Mr. Santorum said.
The exchanges between Mr. Paul and Mr. Santorum have become commonplace on the campaign trail. The two Republicans have butted heads repeatedly over what the nation should do to ensure that Iran does not acquire the capability to develop a nuclear weapon — with Mr. Paul warning against military action and Mr. Santorum advocating military strikes against the nation's nuclear development facilities.
Asked Saturday whether he stood by his assertion that Mr. Gingrich is a "chicken hawk" for avoiding military service as a young man and then pushing for military actions overseas, Mr. Paul answered: "Yes."
"I think people who don't serve when they could ... they have no right to send our kids off to war, and not to even be against the wars we have," he said
Mr. Gingrich said that as an "Army brat" and son of a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Army he understands what military families need. "Dr. Paul has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false," the former House speaker said. "The fact is, I never asked for deferment. I was married with a child. It was never a question."
Mr. Paul suggested the explanation didn't add up. "When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids, and I went," he said.
When the conversation turned to the controversial 20-year-old newsletters that have caused him headaches on the campaign trail because of the racist and homophobic themes, Mr. Paul said that he didn't write them and went on to praise civil rights activists Martin Luther King, Jr.
"One of my heroes is Martin Luther King, because he practiced the libertarian policy of peaceful resistance," Mr. Paul said. He also said that the enforcement of the nation's drug laws has led to blacks being incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates than whites.
"How many times have you seen the white rich person get the electric chair?" he asked. "If we really want to be concerned with racism...we ought to look at the drug laws."
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