CONCORD, N.H. — Front-runner Mitt Romney came under sharp criticism from rival Republican presidential hopefuls during a Sunday morning faceoff just hours after he largely brushed aside their criticism in the opening round of back-to-back debates just days before the New Hampshire primary.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich accused Romney of “pious baloney” for saying he’s not a career politician, demanding that Romney “just level with the American people.”
Romney denied the accusation briskly. “Politics is not my career,” he said. “My life’s passion has been my family, my faith, my country.”
The exchange and another one in which former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum swapped jibes with Romney marked the opening moments of the final debate before Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary.
Romney won the Iowa caucuses last Tuesday by eight votes over Santorum. He leads in the polls in New Hampshire, where his rivals have all but conceded he will win. Romney has a vacation home in the state and served for four years as governor of next-door Massachusetts.
Romney’s rivals hope to hold down his margin of victory and are jostling to finish in the top tier of candidates to gain momentum heading into the next nominating contests on friendlier turf in southern states with large numbers of conservative evangelical Republicans who may be wary of Romney’s shifting positions on abortion and gay rights.
South Carolina comes next, on Jan. 21, the first Southern state to hold a primary, and Romney pointedly noted that he has been endorsed by that state’s governor, Nikki Haley.
The debate began only hours after one in which Romney’s rivals made early attempts to knock the former Massachusetts governor off-stride but spent more time squabbling among themselves in an attempt to emerge as his chief rival.
Santorum finished second in Iowa, followed by libertarian-leaning Texas Rep. Ron Paul, with Gingrich fourth, Texas Gov. Rick Perry fifth and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann in last place. She has since quit the race. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman skipped Iowa in hopes of a breakout showing in New Hampshire.
Generally, the morning-after debate on Sunday followed the same trend as the one the night before.
Romney shrugged off the attacks from his rivals on the debate stage and worked to turn the focus onto Obama and the long road to economic recovery, while his rivals maneuvered for position.
The former Massachusetts governor said he doesn’t blame the president for the recession, which was well under way when Obama took office in 2009. “What I blame him for is having it go on so long and going to deep and having a recovery that’s so tepid.”
Obama has been “anti-investment, anti-jobs and anti-business,” he said.
Gingrich, for his part, said Romney was a “relatively timid Massachusetts moderate” whose state ranked fourth from the bottom in job creation when he was governor.
But confronted with one of his campaign leaflets declaring Romney to be unelectable against President Barack Obama, Gingrich hedged. “I think he’ll have a very hard time getting elected.”
Romney said he had created more jobs in one state than Obama has in the entire country, adding that it was important to replace “a lifetime politician” like the president with a different type of leader.
Santorum, too, took a swipe at Romney, asking why he hadn’t sought re-election as governor after one term.
“Why did you bail out? And the bottom line is, I go fight the fight,” Santorum said, referring to his time in Congress in the House of Representatives from a heavily Democratic district.
Romney jabbed back with a reference to Santorum’s lucrative career in the six years since he lost a Senate re-election campaign in 2006.
“I long for the day when instead of having people to go to Washington for 20 to 30 years, will get elected and then when they lose office, they stay there and make money as lobbyists or conducting their businesses.
“I think it stinks,” Romney said.
Moments later, Gingrich appeared irked and accused Romney of using more than his allotted time to respond.
“I realize the red light doesn’t mean anything to you because you’re the front-runner.”
“Could we drop a little bit of the pious baloney. The fact is you ran in ’94 and lost (to Ted Kennedy). … You were running for president while you were governor. … You’ve been running consistently for years.”
Perry drew some laughs as well as applause when he said that federal bureaucrats would experience pain as a result of his plans to cut spending, especially those in the departments of education, commerce and energy. That was a reference to his gaffe in an earlier debate when he couldn’t recall the name of the third of the Cabinet-level agencies he has proposed eliminating.
Huntsman, who was President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China before quitting to run for the White House, returned to a comment Romney had made the night before. Romney said then that the rest of the Republican hopefuls had been trying to oppose the administration’s policies while Huntsman was advancing them.
“And I just want to remind the people here in New Hampshire and throughout the United States, he criticized me while he was out raising money for serving my country in China, yes, under a Democrat, like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They’re not asking what political affiliation the president is.”