With only eight votes separating GOP front-runner Mitt Romney from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucuses last week, both men drew heavy fire from their political rivals on Saturday night in the first of two back-to-back debates leading up to Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
But there were plenty of attacks to go around for all of the remaining six candidates who want to be the Republican Party’s standard bearer and no clear winner — or loser — in the two-hour debate that ABC News and Yahoo News sponsored at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.
“Well, of course I was talking about Gov. Romney,” Santorum acknowledged to a question posed by ABC’s Diane Sawyer about a statement he made that Americans don’t need a CEO or manager to be their next president.
“Well, business experience doesn’t necessarily match up with being the commander in chief of this country,” Santorum said. “The commander in chief of this country isn’t a CEO. It’s someone who has to lead and it’s also being the president is not a CEO. You can’t direct members of Congress and members of the Senate as to how you do things. You’ve got to lead and inspire. And that’s what I think the people here in Iowa and New Hampshire were looking for — someone who can inspire and paint a positive vision for this country and I’ve been the one that’s been able to do that, and that’s the reason I think we’re doing well in the polls.”
Romney fired back: “I think people who spend their life in Washington don’t understand what happens out in the real economy. They think that people who start businesses are just managers.
“People who start as entrepreneurs to start a business from the ground up and get customers and get investors and hire people to join them — those people are leaders and the chance to lead in free enterprise is extraordinarily critical to also being able to lead a state like I led in Massachusetts and by the way led the Olympics.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos about recent attacks by his supporters questioning the “spectacular profits” of Romney’s business — Bain Capital — by stripping American businesses of assets, selling everything to the highest bidder and often killing jobs for big financial rewards.
“I’m very much for free enterprise. I’m very much for exactly what the governor just described — create a business, grow jobs, provide leadership. I’m not nearly as enamored of the Wall Street model where you can flip companies. You can go in and have leveraged buyouts. You can basically take out all of the money leaving behind the workers,” Gingrich explained.
“The governor has every right to defend that. But I think it’s a legitimate part of the debate to say, ‘Okay, on balance were people better off or were people worse off for this particular style of investment.'”
Again Romney was on the defensive, saying, “I’m not surprised to have The New York Times try and put free enterprise on trial. I’m not surprised to have the Obama administration do that either.
“It’s a little surprising from my colleagues on this stage. We understand that in the free economy in the private sector that sometimes investments don’t work and you’re not successful. It always pains you if you have to be in a situation of downsizing a business in order to try and make it more successful, turn it around and try and grow it again. And I’m very proud of the fact that the two enterprises I led were quite successful, and the Olympics were successful and my state was successful.”
On balance, he said his firm invested in more than 100 businesses for a net gain of 100,000 jobs at businesses, including Sports Authority and Staples.
Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China, added that he believed Romney’s business record was fair game for the debate.
“It’s important for the people to look at our records because everybody up here has a record that ought to be scrutinized,” Hunstman said. “I served as a governor. Mitt served as a governor. Others up here had positions of responsibility. Take a look at what we did as governor. I think that is probably more telling in terms of what I would do or Mitt would do as president of the United States.”
Huntsman said he put “bold proposals forward” in his state and led Utah to become the No. 1 state for job creation. “With all due respect to what Rick Perry has said about Texas, we did a little bit better. We reformed healthcare without a mandate. We took our state to number one as the most business friendly state in America. Now, in a time in our nation’s history when we so desperately need jobs, I think that’s going to be a very material part of the discussion.”
Huntsman later said his opponents' policies would start a trade war with China, and he told Romney specifically in Mandarin Chinese that he doesn't understand the situation.
Stephanopoulos pressed Texas Rep. Ron Paul on an ad that his campaign is running that labels Santorum as a corporate lobbyist and Washington insider with a record of betrayal.
“You also call him corrupt in that ad. Sen. Santorum is standing right here. Are you willing to stand by those charges and explain them?” Stephanopoulos said,
As Paul attempted to respond — pointing to an unnamed “survey” that ranked Santorum on the basis of money accepted from what he described as “lobbyists” — Paul was interrupted unexpectedlyby a buzzer, which served as an opening for Santorum to jump in.
“They caught you not telling the truth Ron,” Santorum jabbed, to laughter from the audience.
“What really counts is his record,” Paul countered. “I mean he’s a big government, big spending individual because he preached the fact that he wanted a balanced budget amendment, but voted to raise the debt five times.”
Santorum went on the defensive and attacked Paul: “Let’s talk about the corruption issue,” he snapped. “The group that called me corrupt was a group called CREW. If you haven’t been sued by CREW, you’re not a conservative. CREW is a left-wing organization that puts out a list every election of the top Republicans who have tough races and calls them all corrupt because they take contributions from PACS.
“It’s a ridiculous charge and you should know better than to cite George Soros-like organizations to say that they’re corrupt.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry attempted to use the war of words among his rivals to his advantage.
“I think you’ve just seen a great example of why I got in this race — because I happen to think that I’m the only outsider with the possible exception of Jon Huntsman who has not been part of the problem in Washington, D.C. — the insiders in Washington, D.C.,” snapped Perry.
“We have to nominate someone that can beat Barack Obama, that can get the tea party behind them, that can go to Washington, D.C., and stop that corrupt spending that has been going on. And it doesn’t make any difference whether you are an insider from Washington, D.C., or you’re an insider from Wall Street. That is what Americans rightfully see is the real problem in America today. They want somebody who has a record of executive governing experience like I have in Texas.”
Paul also was asked to explain the racially charged newsletters that went out under his name a number of years ago.
“It’s been explained many times and there were things written 20 years ago approximately that I did not write so concentrating on something that was written 20 years ago that I did not write is diverting the attention from most of the important issues,” he countered.
Paul went on to say that he is a great admirer of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.
“One of my heroes is Martin Luther King because he practiced the Libertarian principle of peaceful resistance and peaceful civil disobedience as did Rosa Parks,” Paul said. “But also I’m the only one up here and the only one in the Democratic Party that understands true racism in this country is in the judicial system and it has to do with enforcing the drug laws.”
Paul added that there are about an equal percentage of blacks and whites who use drugs. “Yet the blacks are arrested way disproportionately. They are prosecuted and imprisoned way disproportionately. They get the death penalty way disproportionately,” he said.
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