Granite State frontrunner Mitt Romney came under sharp attack from his rivals Sunday morning in the final GOP presidential debate before Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. Meanwhile, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who has pinned his campaign hopes on the Granite State, got more airtime than he has at previous debates -- but is it too little too late?
The debate, sponsored by NBC’s Meet the Press, the New Hampshire Union Leader and Facebook, was moderated by David Gregory. Read the full Republican presidential debate recap after the jump.
Full debate video via msnbc.com:
If you’re going to nod off during a nationally-televised debate, the seat in the front row just to the right of the moderator probably isn’t the best place to do it.
Chalk it up to the early hour — or the fact that this debate comes just nine hours after the last one ended.
Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s senior adviser, tells WHDH in the post-debate spin room that Team Romney is feeling good.
“I think he did great,” Fehrnstrom says. “His opponents came into this debate knowing it was their last chance to attack him and knock him off his game, and they failed. It reminds me a little bit of that old Pat Benatar song, ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot,’ except Mitt Romney absorbed their best shots, and I think came out of the process looking stronger.”
Of course, talk to each campaign in the spin room and you’ll come to the conclusion that there were actually six winners in this morning’s debate.
Gingrich – who has been smarting at the negative ads run against him in Iowa -- doubles down on his criticism of a pro-Romney super PAC’s ad that The Washington Post’s Fact Checker Glenn Kessler has bestowed with four Pinnochios, although Gingrich stops short of using the word “liar.”
“To get four Pinnochios in a 30-second ad means there’s virtually nothing accurate in 30 seconds,” Gingrich says.
He then confronts Romney head-on:
“Governor, I wish you would calmly and directly state that it is your former staff running the PAC, it is your millionaire friends giving to the PAC, and you know some of the ads are not true. Just say that, straightforward,” he says to applause.
Romney’s response? Of course the super PAC is run by people who support me. But he notes that “under the law, I can’t direct their ads.”
“If there was something related to abortion that it said that was wrong, I hope they pull it out,” he says. “Anything wrong, I’m opposed to. But you know, this ain’t beanbag.” He then accuses Gingrich of using “over the top” rhetoric – a line that draws a quick rebuke from Gingrich.
“You think my rhetoric was over the top, but your ads were totally reasonable?” Gingrich asks.
Romney has had to fend off such criticism from Gingrich before, but this morning he seems less well-prepared than he previously has, and Gingrich gets in a few effective points.
We’re still scratching our heads, though, at the insistence by Gingrich – who frequently takes to criticizing the mainstream media – that any pro-Romney ads be based on “establishment newspapers like the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Barron’s, Bloomberg News.”
Jon Huntsman gets more applause, this time for his line on America’s “trust deficit.”
“You know what the people of this country are waiting for?” he asks. “They want a leader who is going to unify, who is going to bring us together. Because at the end of the day, that is what leadership is all about.”
“With no trust, I can’t think of anything more corrosive for the people of this nation,” he says as the crowd applauds.
It’s a good sign for his campaign – which has pinned its hopes on New Hampshire – but with only two days left until primary day, it could perhaps be too little, too late.
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich, who seems to have had a harder time breaking through in this debate than in previous ones, gets some laughs of his own. He’s asked whether Romney gave an “easy answer” when he previously said that if Obama is elected, fewer people will have jobs.
“Well, I don’t think that’s an easy answer,” Gingrich says. “I think that’s a statement of fact.”
What New Hampshire debate would be complete without a protesting goat? As the Republican candidates duked it out inside the Chubb Theater this morning, Izak the goat continued to make the rounds
What would you do if you had a son that was gay? WHDH’s Andy Hiller asks Rick Santorum.
“I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it, and I would try to do everything I can to be as good a father to him as possible,” Santorum responds, to a round of applause from the audience.
The statement caps off an exchange during which Santorum and Romney are asked about their views on gay rights.
Hiller reads a 1994 excerpt from Bay Windows, New England’s largest publication for the gay and lesbian community, in which Romney said, “I think the gay community needs more support from the Republican Party and I would be a voice in the Republican Party to foster anti-discrimination efforts.”
“How have you stood up for gay rights, and when have you used your voice to influence Republicans on this issue?” Hiller asks Romney.
Romney responds that while he was governor, he appointed gay people to his cabinet and as judges and “made it very clear that in my view, we should not discriminate in hiring policies, in legal policies.”
He adds that at the same time, he has made it clear since 1994 that he does not favor same-sex marriage.
“But If people are looking for someone who will discriminate against gays, or in any way will try to suggest that people who have a different sexual orientation don’t have full rights in this country, they won’t find that in me,” Romney says.
“When was the last time you stood up and spoke out for increasing gay rights?” Hiller asks.
Responds Romney: “Right now.”
Then Hiller turns to Santorum, who has taken heat from New Hampshire voters over the last week for his views on gay rights.
He deadpans: “I’m surprised this is coming to me.”
Santorum says he’d be a voice for making sure that all Americans are treated with “respect and dignity” and have “equality of opportunity.”
“That does not mean that I would agree with certain things that the gay community would like to do to change laws with respect to marriage, with respect to adoption, and things like that,” he says, adding that when he engages with voters on the issue, “I do so in a respectful tone.”
You can ask it here on the Meet The Press Facebook page.
Ron Paul is asked about his record in the House, where he has introduced 620 pieces of legislation, only four of which have made it to the floor and one of which has been signed into law.
Paul’s take on his lack of legislative success:
“That demonstrates how much out of touch the U.S. government and the U.S. Congress is with the American people,” he says, winning some applause from the crowd:
Rick Santorum – who has been on the receiving end of some of the sharpest attacks in the race, from Paul’s campaign in South Carolina – has something to say about that.
“The serious issue with Congressman Paul here is, you’re right: He’s never really passed anything of any importance,” Santorum says. “One of the reasons people like Congressman Paul is his economic plan. He’s never been able to accomplish any of that— has no track record of being able to work together. He’s been out there on the margins and has really been unsuccessful in working together with anybody to do anything.”
He goes on:
“The problem is that what Congressman Paul can do as commander-in-chief is he can from Day One do what he says he wants to do, which is pull our troops back from overseas, put them here in America, leave us in a situation where in the world is now going to be created huge amounts of vacuums all over the place. ... The problem with Congressman Paul is that all the things Republicans like about him, he can’t accomplish, and all the things they’re worried about, he’d do Day One.”
Meanwhile, Huntsman’s campaign is hitting back after Paul’s campaign called him “not a serious candidate.”
“RON PAUL: FRINGE CANDIDATE,” reads an e-mail from Team Huntsman’s press shop.
Jon Huntsman is getting more airtime during this morning’s debate than he probably has in every other previous debate combined.
Does that worry his rivals? Well, consider this e-mail that Ron Paul’s campaign sent out to reporters just now:
Jon Huntsman is not a serious candidate for president…
He could not compete in Iowa.
He has not qualified for the Illinois ballot, the 5th largest state.
He has not qualified for the Virginia ballot, the 12th largest state.
Meanwhile, Romney is now making the case that he’s able to work effectively in a divided government – and getting some laughs in the process.
“I was governor of a state that had a slightly Democratic-leaning House and Senate,” he says wryly.
The biggest applause line of the morning so far is not a candidate-on-candidate attack. It’s Rick Perry’s ability to remember all three federal agencies he’d like to do away with.
“And I would tell you, it would be those bureaucrats in the Department of Commerce and Energy and Education that we’re going to do away with,” Perry says, to applause from the crowd and some smiles from his rivals onstage.
(For a reminder of how this endeavor went for Perry at a November GOP debate, click here.)
Need evidence that Mitt Romney is the undisputed frontrunner in the Granite State? We’re barely 10 minutes into the debate and already the former Massachusetts governor is under fire from his rivals — Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich— for his record in politics.
“The one thing you can’t fool the people of New Hampshire about is the record of a governor next door,” Romney says when asked to defend himself from criticism of his record. He name-checks New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), all popular national conservatives who have endorsed his bid.
“These are conservatives that looked at my record, looked at my plan to get this country going,” he says.
Then Santorum takes aim at Romney for serving only one term as governor in the Bay State and accuses him of being a quitter.
“Why did you bail out?” Santorum asks. “The bottom line is, I go and fight the fight. . . . We want someone who’s going to stand up and fight for the conservative principles.”
Romney appears prepared for this line of attack, and he has an answer at the ready: “I think it’s unusual and perhaps understandable” that people who spend their life in politics think that way, he says.
“Run again? That would be about me,” Romney says, noting that he “left the world of politics, went back into business.”
Romney continues with a lengthy reply to Santorum on whether he’d run for re-election as president, but when it’s Gingrich’s turn to speak, he takes this brutal shot at Romney:
“I realize the red light doesn’t mean anything to you because you’re the frontrunner,” Gingrich says. “But can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney? ... Just level with the American people; you’ve been running since at least the 1990s.”
It wins him applause from the early-morning audience here.
Welcome back! We’re in New Hampshire liveblogging the NBC/Facebook GOP presidential debate.
“I just want to say on behalf of all Americans that I thank you for being willing to debate each other every 10 hours, whether you feel you need it or not,” host David Gregory tells the contenders.