Jan. 7, 2012— -- Mitt Romney was unruffled in the New Hampshire Republican debate Saturday night that saw heated exchanges between Ron Paul and his rivals but relatively little criticism leveled against the frontrunner.
Rick Santorum, who is riding high after his number two finish in the Iowa caucus, was one of the few candidates to go aggressively after the former Massachusetts governor, taking on his economic plan and health care record.
The former senator, who has portrayed Romney as a cold, calculating, chief executive and not an inspirational leader, continued that line of attack tonight.
"Business experience doesn't necessarily match up with being the commander-in-chief of this country," Santorum said at the debate in Manchester, N.H., sponsored by ABC News, Yahoo! News and WMUR. "The commander-in-chief of this country isn't a CEO."
Romney responded with a veiled jab at the former senator, saying, "I think people who spend their life in Washington don't understand what happens out in the real economy."
"The people in the private sector," Romney continued, "They're not successful because they're managers. They're successful primarily because they are leaders."
Later in the debate, Santorum attacked Romney's use of the word "middle class," suggesting that it only adds to President Obama's and Democrats' line of argument.
"As far as substance, I agree with Speaker [Newt] Gingrich. I don't think Governor Romney's plan is particularly bold, or is particularly focused on where the problems are in this country," Santorum said.
Saying that "there are no classes in America," Santorum took issue with Romney's use of the word middle class.
"We are a country that don't allow for titles. We don't put people in classes. There may be middle income people, but the idea that somehow or another we're going to buy into the class warfare arguments of Barack Obama is something that should not be part of the Republican lexicon. That's their job, divide, separate, put one group against another," he said.
"I'll use the language of bringing people together," he added.
Gingrich, who has seen his ranking in the polls slide rapidly, was asked about Romney's record at Bain Capital but largely left criticism in a scathing TV ad by a super PAC aligned with his campaign to speak for itself.
The pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future recently teased a forthcoming film it produced -- called "King of Bain" – that featured interviews with laid off employees, hammering Romney for turning their lives upside down. The video calls Romney's tenure at Bain "a story of greed."
Gingrich said he hasn't seen the ad but that "people should look at the film and decide."
"I'm not nearly as enamored of a Wall Street model where you can flip companies, you can go in and have leveraged buyouts, you can basically take out all the money, leaving behind the workers," he said, taking a swipe at Romney without saying his name.
Romney defended his record at Bain, including the fact that some of the companies it invested in led to layoffs. "We understand that in the free economy, in the private sector, that sometimes investments don't work and you're not successful," he said. "It always pains you if you have to be in a situation of downsizing a business in order to try and make it more successful, turn it around and try and grow it again."
Romney may be the frontrunner but it was Rep. Ron Paul who was the subject of the testiest exchanges of the night. Paul went aggressively at his rivals, accusing Santorum of corruption and Gingrich of ducking military service.
Paul and Santorum are engaged in a tooth-and-nail battle for the number two position and the two have had the feistiest exchanges of the debate.
"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," Paul charged, citing a report by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in 2006 that named Santorum one of three "most corrupt" senators.
Paul's charge comes at a time when Santorum is trying to make the case that he is the one true, viable conservative alternative to Romney.
Santorum bashed CREW as a liberal organization and defended his conservative record.
"If you haven't been sued by CREW, you are not a conservative," he responded. "It's a ridiculous charge and you should know better than to cite George Soros-like organizations."
He painted Paul as being far out of the mainstream of the Republican Party: "You vote against everything."
Soon after, Gingrich and Paul clashed in a heated exchange on the question of military service.
"I think people who don't serve when they could and get three or four or even five deferments have no right to send our kids off to war and be even against the wars we have. I'm trying to stop the wars but at least I went when they called me up," he said.
But Gingrich, who received a draft deferment during the Vietnam war on the basis that he had children and was studying, pushed back heavily at Paul's not-so-veiled jab.
"Dr. Paul has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false. The fact is I never asked for a deferment. I was married with a child. It was never a question," he countered. "I personally resent the kind of comments and aspersions he routinely makes without accurate information and then just slurs people."
"When I was drafted I was married with two kids and I went," Paul responded, to applause.
"I wasn't eligible for the draft. I wasn't eligible for the draft," Gingrich repeated.
On the issue of foreign policy and how they would handle Iraq and Afghanistan, the candidates deviated little from their talking points, except Rick Perry, who said for the first time that he would send troops back to Iraq. Perry was the only other candidate on stage, besides Paul, to serve in the armed forces.
"I would send troops back into Iraq," he said. "The idea that we allow the Iranians to come back into Iraq and take over that country, with all of the treasure, both in blood and money that we have spent in Iraq, because this president wants to kowtow to his liberal leftist base and move out those men and women. ... I think it is a huge error for us."
The Texas governor has long criticized Obama for announcing a date for the troop withdrawal but has previously only said that he would consult with commanders on the ground before making troop decisions.
On Iraq, Perry stood out from the rest of the candidates, namely Paul who advocates bringing all troops back home, even from Afghanistan.
They may have stood apart on economic issues, but the candidates were united in opposition when asked about gay marriage, which is legal in New Hampshire and Iowa.
"There's every right for people in this country to form long-term relationships with each other, that doesn't mean they need to call it marriage," said Romney.
"It's a huge jump from being understanding, considerate, concerned [for same-sex couples], which we should be," Gingrich said, "to saying we're therefore going to institute the sacrament of marriage as though it has no basis. The sacrament of marriage is based on a man and a woman, has been for 3,000 years, is at the core of our civilization and is worth protecting and upholding."
"I think protecting and upholding that doesn't mean you need to make life miserable for others," he added.
"I believe the issue of marriage itself is a federal issue," said Santorum, a longtime critic of same-sex marriage. "Marriage is... a foundational institution in our country and we have to have a singular law with respect to that."
Then Gingrich trained fire on the news media for not adequately reporting on recent decisions by Catholic Charities groups to cease adoption services in several states which would have required them to work with same-sex couples.
"You don't hear the opposite question asked: should the Catholic Church be forced to close its adoption services in Massachusetts because it won't adopt to same-sex couples?"
"The bigotry question goes both ways. And there's a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is on the other side and none of it gets covered by the media," he said, drawing loud applause.
"People in this room think Speaker Gingrich is right, and I do too," interjected Romney.
During the debate several of the candidates, including Romney and Gingrich, urged party unity, saying they'd support anyone on the stage if he were to become the GOP nominee to challenge Obama. But not Paul, who some speculate could mount a third party run.
When asked about the possibility of making an independent general election bid, Paul insisted he has "no plans to do it" but would not definitively rule it out.
"I don't intend to do it. And somebody pushed me a little bit hard and said why don't you plan to do it? I just -- I don't want to. So I have no intention," he said. "But I don't know why a person can't reserve a judgment and see how things turn out? You know, in many ways I see the other candidates as very honorable people, but I sometimes disagree with their approach to government."
Jon Huntsman, who has focused the bulk of his campaign efforts in New Hampshire, struggled to maintain his ground and came under a late, last-minute surprising attack by the frontrunner himself.
Romney attacked Huntsman's work as ambassador to China under the Obama administration, saying that as president, he wouldn't talk about China.
"I'm going to tell the Chinese, it's time to stop. I'm not going to let you kill American jobs," he said.
Huntsman responded in Chinese, saying, "he doesn't understand the situation."
Romney, the clear leader in the debate, has never looked stronger than he does right now. He is well ahead of his rivals in the Granite state, garnering 44 percent of the vote among GOP voters in a WMUR poll released Friday. In South Carolina -- the state next in line for the primary -- the former Massachusetts governor is leading the pack with almost 40 percent of the vote, while the only southerner in the contest, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, has fallen to 5 percent.
Romney is leading well ahead of his rivals in all major national polls, but Santorum is also rising quickly, mostly at the expense of Gingrich. In Gallup's latest tracking poll conducted on Jan. 1-6, 29 percent of GOP voters chose Romney, 17 percent picked Gingrich and 16 percent said they would vote for Santorum. This is one of Romney's largest leads since the poll began.
ABC News' Michael Falcone and Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.