Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney answers a question as Rep. Ron Paul,… (Elise Amendola / Associated…)
Reporting from Goffstown, N.H. — Mitt Romney stood largely above the fray Saturday night while rivals challenged one another over personal integrity, leadership qualities and even the willingness to fight for their country, as the GOP presidential candidates brought their skirmishing to the New Hampshire debate stage.
One of the most angry and emotional exchanges came after Ron Paul was asked by moderator Diane Sawyer of ABC News if he was willing to repeat his accusation that Newt Gingrich was a "chicken hawk" for advocating a tough defense policy while failing to serve in the military.
When he did, Gingrich responded in a voice trembling with anger. He said he never sought a Vietnam War deferment, citing his wife and child, and noted his father was a combat veteran. "I personally resent the kinds of comments and aspersions he routinely makes without accurate information and then just slurs people," Gingrich said.
Paul, glowering, demanded a chance to respond. "When I was drafted," he said, "I was married and had two kids and I went."
The snarling back-and-forth underscored the political reality facing the five candidates gathered on a stage at St. Anselm College in this first primary state.
Romney entered the night as a prohibitive New Hampshire favorite, enjoying the benefit of his time in office next door in Massachusetts and the advantage of part-time residency. (He owns a summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee.) His many strengths have turned the New Hampshire contest, in effect, into a race for second place among former House Speaker Gingrich, Texas congressman Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who finished just barely behind Romney in Iowa. The candidates repeatedly tangled, as Romney looked on.
Paul was asked about a TV advertisement attacking Santorum as corrupt, only to be interrupted by a technical glitch that sent a sound burst clanging through the debate hall. "It caught you not telling the truth," Santorum said, to laughter from the audience.
Paul insisted that Santorum had fooled people by posing as a fiscal conservative. "You're a big spender," Paul said. "That's all there is to it."
"I convinced a lot of people," Santorum shot back, "because my record is pretty darn good."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry jumped in and said the squabbling between the two Washington veterans illustrated his point that voters want a president from outside the Beltway "who is not corrupted by the process."
Some of the lighter moments came during a discussion of whether states have the right to ban contraception – and whether those potential bans could be preempted by the constitutional right to privacy. Romney at first objected to the question, telling moderator George Stephanopoulous that he couldn’t imagine a state banning birth control and stating that it was a “silly question.”
“I would totally and completely oppose any effort to ban contraception,” Romney continued. “Contraception, it's working just fine, just leave it alone.”
A short time later when the conversation had moved on to civil unions and gay marriage, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. circled back to birth control: “I have seven kids. Glad we're off the contraception discussion,” he said, as the cameras zoomed in on his wife, Mary Kaye, who laughed.
Huntsman, who has made a direct appeal to New Hampshire’s independents, set himself apart from the other Republican candidates on the issue of gay unions. He noted that he’s been married for 28 years: “I don't feel that my relationship is at all threatened by civil unions.”
“I believe that civil unions are fair,” Huntsman said. “I think it brings a level of dignity to relationships.”
Romney, who like the others opposes gay marriage, adopted a softer tone on that issue than he has in some of his recent forums on the campaign trail. He said “that there’s every right for people in this country to form long-term committed relationships.”
“That doesn't mean that they have to call it marriage,” he said. The former Massachusetts governor said his view was not meant to “discriminate against people or to suggest that -- that gay couples are not just as loving and can't also raise children well.” Instead he said it was a recognition that society would be better off when children “are raised in a setting where there is a male and a female.”