Just 10 hours after the GOP presidential candidates gave their final statements at the ABC/Yahoo/WMUR debate in New Hampshire Saturday night, they were back at it again this morning.
But while the candidates steered clear of directly attacking front-runner Mitt Romney — who has a 20 point lead in the latest NBC/Marist New Hampshire poll — last night, they came out swinging this morning.
A bitter Newt Gingrich, who dropped precipitously in the polls after Romney’s Super PAC bombarded him with negative ads in Iowa, blasted Romney for running a decades-long campaign and using his frontrunner status to take more speaking time on the debate stage.
“I realize the red light doesn’t mean anything to you because you’re the front runner,” Gingrich said at the NBC debate today. “But can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney? The fact is you ran in ’94 and lost. You’ve been running consistently for years and years and years.”
Santorum continued Gingrich’s barrage, charging that Romney “bail[ed] out” by not running for a second term as governor in Massachusetts.
“If his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts why didn’t he run for reelection?” Santorum said. “If it was that great, why didn’t you — why did you bail out? I mean the bottom — the bottom line is — you know, I — I go and fight the fight.”
But neither Santorum nor Gingrich kept their sights trained on Romney for long. Soon the debate devolved into a battle for second-place, allowing Romney to once again stay above the fray and stay almost entirely on-message.
Instead of hitting back at his Republican rivals, Romney took a general election tone, blasting President Obama for being “anti-investment, anti-jobs and anti-business.”
Santorum continued to play offense against the men he is fighting for second place. He sharply criticized Ron Paul for being “unsuccessful at working with anyone on anything” during the three decades he has served in the House of Representatives.
“The serious issue with Congressman Paul is he has never passed anything of any import,” Santorum said. “He’s been out there on the margins.”
Jon Huntsman chimed in on this attack with his campaign sending out a release that labeled Paul a “fringe candidate.”
Paul returned Huntsman’s fire in this battle of the mid-debate press releases with a statement saying Huntsman was “not a serious candidate for president.”
On stage, Huntsman took a softer tone, speaking almost entirely about restoring “trust” in American government. The former Utah governor reserved his only attack for Romney.
“He criticized me while he was out raising money for serving my country in China,” said Huntsman, who served under Obama as the ambassador to 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.”
Romney shot back, saying, “I just think it’s — most likely that the person who should represent our party running against President Obama is not someone who called him a remarkable leader and went to be his ambassador in China.”
“This nation is divided,” Huntsman responded, “because of attitudes like that.”
Huntsman, who has staked his campaign on his success in New Hampshire, had perhaps his strongest showing at Sunday’s debate.
“Everybody’s got something nasty to say,” Huntsman said. “[The American people] want a leader who is going to unify, who is going to bring us together. I’m going to attack that trust deficit just as strongly as I’m going to attack that economic deficit.”
On social issues, a topic that was prominent at the ABC/Yahoo/WMUR debate Saturday, both Romney and Santorum defended their stances on gay rights. Romney emphasized his opposition to gay marriage but said he does not discriminate.
When Santorum, who derives much of his support from staunch social conservatives, was asked how he would react if his son told him he was gay, Santorum said he would love him just the same.
“I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it and do everything I could to be as good a father to him as possible,” Santorum said.
Rick Perry, who is capturing a mere 1 percent of New Hampshire GOP voters in the latest polls, made a hard play for tea party support, repeatedly blasting his rivals for being “Washington insiders” and supporting “out of control” government spending.
The Texas governor had one of the biggest applause lines of the morning when, playing off of his now-infamous “Oops” moment, he successfully named all three of the departments he would cut as president.
“I would tell you,” Perry said to laughter, “it would be those bureaucrats at Department of Commerce and Energy and Education that we’re going to do away with.”