In the latest polls, Romney has been maintaining a lead of more than 20 points over his rivals. If that kind of margin holds through Tuesday, it could provide Romney a burst of momentum that might make him all but unstoppable in South Carolina and Florida later this month.
But New Hampshire is known for its independence, and it has a history of tripping up leading candidates with last-minute surprises on primary day.
Romney’s rivals, hoping that something like that will happen this time, set fierce new terms of engagement almost from the opening moments of their debate Sunday morning.
“Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?” former House speaker Newt Gingrich asked Romney, after the former Massachusetts governor once again portrayed himself as a career businessman with a disdain for lifelong politicians.
“The fact is, you ran in ’94 and lost. That’s why you weren’t serving in the Senate,” Gingrich said. “You had a very bad reelection rating [as governor]. You dropped out of office. . . . You were running for president while you were governor.
“You have been running consistently for years and years and years,” Gingrich added. “So this idea that suddenly citizenship showed up in your mind, just level with the American people.”
When Romney promoted his record cutting taxes and balancing budgets as governor, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), who fought him to a virtual tie in last week’s Iowa caucuses, retorted: “If you didn’t want to even stand before the people of Massachusetts and run on your record, if it was that great, why did you bail out?”
And where Romney had cited his 1994 Senate bid against Edward M. Kennedy as a heroic and quixotic challenge to “the policies of the liberal welfare state,” Santorum said Romney’s loss resulted from a lack of spine.
“He wouldn’t stand for conservative principles,” Santorum said. “He ran from Ronald Reagan. And he said he was going to be to the left of Ted Kennedy on gay rights, on abortion, a whole host of other issues.”
Next up was former Utah governor Jon Huntsman. Defending himself against Romney’s barbs about having served as President Obama’s ambassador to China, Huntsman suggested that Romney puts partisanship above country.
“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,” Huntsman said, in an oblique reminder that none of Romney’s five sons have been in the military. “They’re not asking who — what political affiliation the president is. I want to be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and this country: I will always put my country first.”