- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 8, 2012

CONCORD, N.H. — As the Republican presidential hopefuls wrapped up their final weekend of campaigning before the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, the top three challengers of front-runner Mitt Romney attacked his conservative credentials and portrayed him as a political loser.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas sharpened their criticism of Mr. Romney on Sunday in their second debate of the weekend, seeming to realize that their sparring in a Saturday night debate had left Mr. Romney unscathed.

“If his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts, why didn’t he run for re-election?” asked Mr. Santorum, who is drawing large crowds in New Hampshire.

He turned to Mr. Romney on the stage and asked, “If it was that great, why did you bail out? The bottom line is, I go and fight the fight.”

Mr. Romney replied that he never intended to be a career politician and that he had accomplished much of what he wanted in one term as governor from 2003 to 2007.

“Run again? That would be about me,” Mr. Romney said.

Mr. Gingrich said Mr. Romney was an unpopular governor and failed in a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1994. Mr. Romney also ran for president in 2008.

“Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?” Mr. Gingrich asked Mr. Romney. “You were running for president while you were governor. You then promptly re-entered politics. You lost to [John] McCain, just as you lost to [Ted] Kennedy. Just level with the American people. You’ve been running at least since the 1990s. The fact is, you ran in ‘94 and lost. The fact is, you had a very bad re-election rating” as governor.

Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said after the debate that Mr. Romney had withstood the rhetorical assault from his challengers.

“It was their last chance to attack him, and they failed,” Mr. Fehrnstrom said.

But some evidence showed that the broadsides were hurting Mr. Romney’s campaign. A Suffolk/Channel 7 News tracking poll released Sunday showed that Mr. Romney’s support in New Hampshire has dropped to 35 percent, down 9 points since Friday. Mr. Paul is second at 20 percent, with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. third at 11 percent. Mr. Gingrich was next with 9 percent, and Mr. Santorum had 8 percent.

The 90-minute debate Sunday was sponsored by NBC’s “Meet the Press” and Facebook.

Mr. Romney held a town-hall meeting later Sunday with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has endorsed him. Mr. Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry flew to South Carolina, which holds the next primary Jan. 21.

Mr. Gingrich met with voters Sunday at a Mexican restaurant in Manchester, where a couple of dozen Occupy Wall Street protesters demonstrated outside. The former House speaker pledged to work for a guest-worker program as part of comprehensive immigration reform.

A black man in the audience told Mr. Gingrich to “stop using blacks in general as a steppingstone or a punching bag.” He was referring to the candidate’s comment in New Hampshire about blacks and food stamps.

At a campaign stop Thursday, Mr. Gingrich said, “If the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”

Mr. Gingrich told the man he had been quoted out of context by the Democratic National Committee.

“It makes me very irritated,” Mr. Gingrich said. “As somebody who has served with Colin Powell, as somebody who has served with Condi Rice, I have a fairly good sense that in fact African-Americans make many contributions to America. What I said was, there is a real problem in America with a president who has put more people on food stamps — I didn’t say any ethnic group of people — than any president in history. I’m in favor of jobs.”

“Everyone’s in favor of jobs,” another man called out.

“Well, not necessarily,” Mr. Gingrich responded.

Mr. Paul, meanwhile, held a town-hall meeting in a banquet hall in a sprawling inn along the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee that attracted hundreds of people — enough that the building’s host stopped people from pouring in because of the fire code.

Joined by his son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the 12-term congressman said he plans to continue pushing the limited-government philosophy that he has advocated for decades, which, he said, has caused some in Washington to label him as “dangerous.”

While others want to tinker around the edges on spending and reducing the size of the federal government, he said, he wants to cut $1 trillion in spending during his first year in office, to shrink the federal workforce through attrition and end the unnecessary wars overseas that drive up the national deficit and create enemies abroad.

“That means, if you are supporting me, you are a very dangerous person because you want balanced budgets, living within our means, sound money, to follow the Constitution, and defend America,” Mr. Paul said, quipping that “I have such a strange, new idea of obeying the Constitution.”

In the debate Sunday, Mr. Huntsman, who is placing all his hopes on a strong finish in New Hampshire, chided Mr. Romney for his earlier suggestion that Mr. Huntsman was somehow disloyal to the GOP for having served as ambassador to China in the Obama administration.

“I was criticized by Gov. Romney for putting my country first,” Mr. Huntsman said. “I want to be very clear with the people in this country. I will always put my country first.”

Mr. Romney refused to backtrack, saying, “I think we serve our country first by standing for people who stand for conservative principles.”

Mr. Perry continued to try to paint himself as the only Washington outsider in the field.

“There’s a bunch of people standing up here who say they’re conservative, but their records don’t follow up on that,” he said.

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