Embattled Romney, Opponents Clash

at the Republican debate in Manchester, N.H. Saturday night. Video by ABC News/Facebook/WMUR
By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 6, 2008

MANCHESTER, N.H., Jan. 5 -- Three days before New Hampshire voters go to the polls, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney engaged in a confrontational televised debate with his fellow Republican presidential contenders, clashing over foreign policy, immigration, character and negative campaigning.

Romney accused his chief rival in the state, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants. "I have never supported amnesty," McCain retorted angrily, adding, "You can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads, but they still won't be true."

Clearly feeling under siege and trailing McCain in two polls released Saturday, Romney was repeatedly in the crosshairs of his rivals. After one sharp exchange with Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee, Romney accused his opponents of attacking his character rather than engaging in a serious debate. They, in turn, accused him of flip-flopping. "Is there a way to have this about issues and not about personal attacks?" he asked. "I hope so."

As he seeks to recover from his defeat in Iowa in a state where he was once a strong front-runner, Romney has reinvented his pitch to voters here, turning throwaway lines from his speeches of the past month into the central theme of his candidacy. Gone is the discussion of how important it is for young people to "get married before they have babies." Gone is the story about his father's main accomplishment being raising his four sons. Gone is the shtick about how Midwestern values are the same as heartland values and Yankee values.

In their place is an attempt to convince voters that Romney is the Republican equivalent of Democrats Barack Obama and John Edwards -- the only candidate who can bring radical change to a Washington establishment mired in bureaucracy and old thinking. "I spent my life changing things. I did not spend my life in politics, talking about changing things," he told a crowd in Bedford earlier in the day.

But when Romney sought at the debate to cast himself as the candidate of change, embracing what he said was the lesson of Obama's victory in Iowa, McCain sarcastically referred to the criticism that Romney has frequently changed his positions: "We disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree you are the candidate of change."

Earlier, Romney criticized Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, for writing that President Bush's foreign policy has "an arrogant bunker mentality." That prompted a feisty Huckabee to accuse Romney of supporting a timed withdrawal from Iraq.

"Governor, don't try to characterize my position," Romney retorted.

"Which one?" Huckabee shot back, prompting Romney to accuse him of engaging in a personal attack.

The exchange capped a six-way argument sparked by host Charlie Gibson, who asked whether the candidates support Bush's policy of preemptive war. The leading candidates all embraced the policy, but then ganged up on Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) for repeating his belief that terrorism is sparked by U.S. foreign policy.

In the first half-hour, Gibson sought from the candidates a statement of the principles on which they would base a presidency. Later, they discussed how to provide health-care coverage to the uninsured, prompting a sharp exchange between McCain and Romney over the role of drug companies.

"Don't turn the pharmaceuticals into the big, bad guys," Romney said.

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