Elections 2012: Mitt Romney Enjoys Safe Debate With His Rivals’ Toothless Performance

What was supposed to be a Bataan death march of a debate for Mitt Romney on Saturday turned into something of a cakewalk, as none of his nearest competitors — and none, really, are that near — chose to take a whack.

Expected to be a punching bag, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts with a big lead in New Hampshire got a major break as his main rivals stopped short of going all-out negative against him and instead squabbled among themselves. Photo: Saint Anselm College/Flickr

Republican Mitt Romney fended off a few attacks on his business record on Saturday and sailed through a high-stakes debate that his rivals used to jockey for position as his conservative alternative in the race for the White House, Reuters reports.

Hosted by ABC and Yahoo News, Saturday night’s debate was exactly the type of non-eventful affair desired by someone comfortably in the lead in the New Hampshire primary polls and expanding his lead in South Carolina.

And it raised the question, yet again, as to whether the rest of the field is wary of attacking Romney head-on for fear of alienating the next GOP nominee or, potentially, president.

Looking cool and confident with hands in his pockets, Romney repeatedly positioned himself above the fray. He stuck to lines from his campaign stump speech and trained fire on the man he wants to replace in November’s election, Democratic President Barack Obama.

“I don’t want to be critical of the people on this stage,” Romney said at the first of two back-to-back debates that represent the last chance to sway large numbers of voters before New Hampshire votes in its Republican primary on Tuesday.

Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania painted himself as the one candidate on the stage with the credentials to provide a pure, conservative case against Mr. Obama.

According to The New York Times, he warned Republicans that Mr. Romney’s pedigree would make it more difficult to push back against the income equality argument that is a central theme of the president’s re-election strategy.

“I was not ever for an individual mandate. I wasn’t for a top-down, government-run health care system. I wasn’t for the big bank of Wall Street bailout, as Governor Romney was,” Mr. Santorum said. “We’re looking for someone who can win this race, who can win this race on the economy and on the core issues of this election.”

Libertarian congressman Ron Paul, hoping to thwart Santorum’s rise and hang on to second place in New Hampshire, tried to raise doubts about Santorum’s conservative credentials by pointing toward his predilection for securing massive amounts of government aid for his home state.

Santorum has come under scrutiny for a long history of obtaining taxpayer dollars for Pennsylvania for what critics call wasteful projects like $500,000 for a polar bear exhibit at the Pittsburgh zoo.

“To say you’re a conservative is a stretch, but you’ve convinced a lot of people,” Paul told Santorum.

Santorum seemed to take Paul’s broadside in stride. He defended his practices, saying he made sure Pennsylvania got a fair share of the money its taxpayers sent to the federal government and “I don’t apologize for that.”

In one of the most personal clashes of the evening, Mr. Paul and Mr. Gingrich fought over military service. Mr. Gingrich said he was married and had a child, so he did not join the military as a young man. Mr. Paul said that he, too, had children, and when he was drafted, “I went.”

In a discussion on Iran, Santorum sharply criticized Paul’s non-interventional view toward foreign entanglements, when Paul said he liked that the U.S. Navy had picked up some Iranian fishermen stranded in the Arabian Sea.

“This is the kind of stuff we should deal with,” said Paul. Santorum quickly retorted: “Well, Ron, if we had your foreign policy, there wouldn’t have been a fleet there to pick up the Iranian fishermen.”

Mitt Romney got involved in a bizarre exchange with moderator George Stephanopoulos on contraception and states’ rights, informs The Huff Post. At first, Romney pleaded ignorance.

“George,” he said, “I don’t know whether a state has a right to ban contraception. No state wants to. I mean, the idea of you putting forward things that states might want to do that no — no state wants to do and asking me whether they could do it or not is kind of a silly thing, I think.”

When that didn’t work, he pulled out one of the debate’s most memorable lines: “Contraception, it is working just fine. Leave it alone.”

Jon Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to China who skipped Iowa to focus on New Hampshire, accused Romney of trying to instigate a trade war with China with frequent salvos over China’s currency policies.

Huntsman moved into second place in New Hampshire in a poll published on Saturday and needs a big performance to score a breakthrough.

Former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, bitter about losing his front-runner status after he was subjected to massive attack ads by Romney and his supporters before Iowa, questioned Romney’s leadership at Bain Capital.

Just ten hours after wrapping up in Manchester, all seven candidates will meet again nearly 20 miles north in Concord.

And several hundred journalists watching the primetime ABC News/Yahoo debate on large screens in a nearby press filing center at Saint Anselm College will soon find themselves together once again, tapping out dispatches from a filing center near the Capitol Center for The Arts, where Sunday morning’s NBC/Facebook debate will take place.

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