Mitt Romney, left, and Rick Santorum answer questions during the GOP debate… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )
Reporting from Goffstown, N.H. — Representing the new order in the Republican race for president, the opening exchange of Saturday night's New Hampshire debate saw Mitt Romney clashing with the surging Rick Santorum on the question of whose background best positioned them to lead the nation.
Romney, the national front-runner for the GOP nomination and a decided favorite ahead of Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary, opened the debate by attacking President Obama in response to a question about promising new jobs numbers.
"It's very good news. I hope we continue to see good news. But it's not thanks to President Obama," the former Massachusetts governor said, adding that his policies have "made the recovery more tepid."
"The president is going to try and take responsibility for things getting better. You know, it's like the rooster taking responsibility for the sunrise," Romney continued. "In fact, what he did was make things harder."
Santorum was then asked about a recent talking point on the campaign trail, in which he argued that the nation needed a leader, not a "CEO" -- referring to Romney.
In fact, it was not the economy but Iran that was the most pressing issue facing the United States, Santorum argued.
"There's no one with more experience in dealing with that country than I do," he said after detailing his experience dealing with the issue as a U.S. senator.
"[Romney] says, 'I've got business experience.' Well business experience doesn't necessarily match up with being commander in chief," he said. "You've got to lead and inspire. That's what I think the people in Iowa and New Hampshire were looking for. That's the reason I think we're doing well in the polls."
Romney punched back with an attack on Washington, saying that those who have spent their life there "don't understand the real economy."
"The chance to lead in free enterprise is extraordinarily critical," he said. "My experience is in leadership. ... I wish people in Washington had the experience in leading the real economy first."
The debate is the first of two in a 14-hour span ahead of Tuesday's first primary.
A set of new polls in the last day each showed Santorum climbing in the Granite State, from low single digits before the Iowa vote to as high as 13% in an NBC News/Marist poll.
But Romney still leads the field by an average of 20 points in recent polls.