Last Shots Fired Before New Hampshire

Primary uncertainties have fiery candidates on edge.

The Republican presidential candidates debated on Saturday night and Sunday morning in a last bid to influence the outcome of Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire. Romney emerged unscathed from the first event, but suffered a double-teaming from Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum in the second as the two sought to chip at his double-digit lead in the state.

Suffolk University has Romney with 35% of the vote in New Hampshire, followed by Ron Paul (20%), Jon Huntsman (11%), Newt Gingrich (9%), Rick Santorum (8%) and Rick Perry with less than one percent. American Research Group likewise finds Romney with a huge lead at 40%, but differs on the rest. ARG has Huntsman in second (17%) followed by Paul (16%), Santorum (12%), Gingrich (8%) and Perry (1%). Romney is expected to win comfortably, but it is hard to predict how everyone else will perform. That made these two debates especially important for those vying to be the alternative to Romney.

Rick Santorum is now a top-tier candidate and performed like one, speaking powerfully and with an impressive amount of detail and facts. Arguably his best moment was when a moderator on Sunday asked him how he’d react if he had a son who told him that he was gay. Santorum replied, “I’d love him just as much as the second before he told me.”

On national security, Santorum reiterated that the Iranian regime’s ideology makes it different than the Soviet Union and that the U.S. should have long been supporting the Iranian people seeking to overthrow it. He said that the Iranian people “love America” because of how it stands up for freedom. He decried the Obama administration’s refusal to identify the enemy, specifically how it rid policy documents of the term, “radical Islam.”

Santorum went on the offensive against Ron Paul and Mitt Romney. He said that the former had never passed any legislation and that his domestic agenda would never get through Congress, but he could implement his less popular foreign policy agenda. “All that Republicans like about him, he can’t accomplish and all the things that worry them, he will do on day one,” he said.

Santorum contrasted himself with Romney by saying that he ran on his principles in a 71% Democratic district and won, whereas Romney “ran to the left of Kennedy” and lost. He reacted to Romney’s boasting of his record as governor by asking him why he “bailed out” and didn’t run for re-election if he did so well. Santorum was hinting at Romney’s low approval rating in Massachusetts.

Newt Gingrich, as usual, spoke eloquently and with detail. He accused the media of having a double-standard by reporting on alleged Christian bigotry but not on anti-Christian bigotry, winning a huge applause. On national security, he warned that there would be an “industrial depression across the world in 48 hours”  if Iran shuts down the Strait of Hormuz. He listed the various problems facing the U.S. in the Middle East, specifically the “decaying” of Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood electoral victories in Egypt and the uncertainty over who will lead Libya.

Gingrich called for a “fundamentally new strategy” based on the Cold War model to change the Middle East that would use soft power more than military force. He said that the solution for Afghanistan is found in Pakistan and Iran and that Iraq “will be fine” if the Iranian regime is overthrown. Gingrich said that a massive energy independence program is needed to stop the Saudi exporting of Wahhabism and that two-thirds of the money saved would go to paying off the deficit and one-third would be invested in infrastructure if he becomes president.

Gingrich clashed bitterly with Paul and Romney. On Saturday, Paul said that he still considers Gingrich to be a “chickenhawk” that avoided serving in Vietnam but is willing to send young men and women to die in wars. Gingrich replied that Paul has a “long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false” and that he was ineligible for the draft.

On Sunday, Gingrich was cheered and booed when he ridiculed a long answer of Romney’s, saying, “I realize that the red light doesn’t matter to you because you’re the frontrunner.” He called Romney a “relatively timid Massachusetts moderate” whose state was near the bottom in job creation when he was governor. He predicted that Romney would have a “very hard time” defeating Obama. Gingrich later bashed Romney for not condemning attack ads run by a Super PAC supporting his candidacy.

The two butted heads again after Romney responded to Santorum’s question about why he didn’t run for re-election. Romney said it was because he didn’t want to be a career politician. Gingrich jumped in and called his answer “pious baloney” and said that he has been running for office since the 1990s. Gingrich also boasted that the Wall Street Journal supports his economic plan over Romney’s, which the paper said was more similar to Obama’s.

Ron Paul combated the blowback from the racism in his old newsletters by stating that Martin Luther King Jr. is his hero and claiming that the War on Drugs and overseas wars disproportionally affect minorities. He said he is not weak on foreign policy because he supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to attack Bin Laden and that he “doesn’t want” Iran to have nuclear weapons. However, he said that sanctions should not be placed on Iran and instead, the U.S. rescuing of Iranian seamen from pirates is the type of action that should be taken. Santorum said that under a Ron Paul presidency, the U.S. wouldn’t have had the fleet in the area to rescue the Iranians.

On Saturday, Ron Paul slammed Santorum, saying it is a “stretch” to call him a conservative because he allegedly is a big spender and proponent of big government. He criticized his voting to increase the debt ceiling, his support for the prescription drug program and No Child Left Behind. He also went after him for lobbying and called him corrupt. Santorum pointed out that Paul was citing an anti-conservative organization for his claims that he is corrupt, saying “you should know better than to cite George Soros-like organizations.”

Jon Huntsman, who has based his entire campaign on New Hampshire, won applauses for supporting term limits and condemning the “revolving door” where former members of Congress go into lobbying after retiring. He repeatedly accused his opponents of reciting “political spin.” On national security, he was the only candidate other than Ron Paul to support an immediate drawdown in Afghanistan. He wants to reduce U.S. forces there to 10,000 within one year and predicted civil war in the country. He also supports cutting defense, saying that spending needs to be brought down from 24% of GDP to 19%.

On Saturday, Huntsman locked horns with Romney over China, slamming the governor for wanting to confront the country over its unfair trade practices. Romney rebutted by saying that Huntsman implemented Obama’s China policy for two years as the U.S. ambassador. Huntsman responded by answering in Chinese.

On Sunday, Huntsman immediately returned to the argument and said that Romney shouldn’t criticize him for putting “his country first.” A big applause followed. Romney brought up letters Huntsman wrote calling Obama a “remarkable leader.” Huntsman replied, “Our nation is divided because of attitudes like that.”

Rick Perry accused his rivals of being big-spending Washington D.C. insiders and called for a Balanced Budget Amendment and part-time Congress. He made the audience laugh hysterically when he answered a question about cutting government by mentioning the three departments he’d cut, a joke referencing his earlier blunder when he forgot the third one he wanted to get rid of. On national security, he took a hawkish tone. He stood alone in calling for U.S. troops to return to Iraq.

On Tuesday, the first primary will be held in New Hampshire, deciding the fate of Jon Huntsman’s candidacy. From there, it is off to South Carolina, which has chosen the Republican nominee every time since 1980. If Romney wins, his momentum will probably be unstoppable and it will be very likely that he will be the one facing Obama in November.

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