(Charles Krupa / Associated…)
After front-runner Mitt Romney got off relatively unscathed in Saturday night’s GOP presidential debate, Sunday morning’s rematch in New Hampshire was another story entirely. Romney out of the gate was treated like a piñata by his rivals, who questioned everything from his record to his integrity.
The key to the pile-on was, unsurprisingly, Newt Gingrich, who was asked by moderator David Gregory whether Romney was electable and should be the nominee. Gingrich, who has been nursing a grudge since a pro-Romney super PAC splattered his name all across Iowa, called Romney a “timid Massachusetts moderate.”
Gingrich said he, as a true “Reagan conservative,” would stand up better against President Obama’s mighty reelection machine than Romney.
Prompted by Gregory, Gingrich said, “I think he would have a very hard time getting elected.”
The NBC News/Facebook debate, held in Concord, N.H., was the second in about 12 hours, and came just 48 hours before the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary.
Romney said he was “very proud of the record I have. People saw I was a solid conservative and I brought important change to Massachusetts” by cutting taxes and balancing the budget.
He also implicitly accused Gingrich of being out of step with today’s GOP and having “axes to grind” by citing his support from more modern conservative politicians such as New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
But Rick Santorum was also waiting to jump on Romney, asking him why he didn’t run for reelection after his first term in Massachusetts.
“If [your record] was that great, why did you bail out?” Santorum said. “We want someone when the times gets tough ... we want someone who stands up for conservative principles.”
Romney responded by saying that running for reelection would have been “about me” and that he wanted to return to the private sector.
"Are you going to tell people you aren’t going to run for reelection if you win?" Santorum interjected.
Gingrich labeled Romney's answer “pious baloney” and said that had Romney not lost in 1994 in his Senate race to Ted Kennedy, he would have been the kind of career politician he often derides.
“Just level with the American people,” Gingrich said to applause.
He also suggested Romney was arrogant by ignoring the signal to keep his answers short.
"I realize the red light doesn't mean anything to you because you are the front-runner," Gingrich growled.