(Alex Wong / Getty Images )
Reporting from Concord, N.H. — In the most contentious debate of the GOP presidential campaign, Mitt Romney got a long-anticipated pummeling from his Republican rivals Sunday morning, just two days ahead of the New Hampshire primary.
The Republican front-runner had floated above the fray less than 12 hours earlier, in an another network debate. But when he joined the rest of the GOP contenders on NBC’s “Meet the Press” for a rare morning confrontation, he found himself on the receiving end of a fusillade of attacks -- for his shape-shifting on issues, his political ambitions and his record as governor of next-door Massachusetts.
“Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?” Newt Gingrich asked after Romney contended that, unlike others on the stage, he wasn’t a career politician. Gingrich pointed out that Romney had run for the U.S. Senate in 1994 and for the presidency in 2008, losing both times.
“You've been running consistently for years and years and years,” Gingrich said. “So this idea that suddenly citizenship showed up in your mind -- just level with the American people.”
The former House speaker labeled Romney a “timid Massachusetts moderate” and predicted he would have “a very hard time” defeating President Obama if he became the GOP nominee.
The withering remarks came as Romney proudly boasted that he had “not been a lifetime politician” and that “for me, politics is not a career.”
“I went to Massachusetts to make it different. I didn't go there to begin a political career, running time and time again,” he said. “Run again? That would be about me.”
Rick Santorum, the fastest rising GOP contender, accused Romney of bailing out on the people of his state when he ran for president instead of seeking reelection when his gubernatorial term ended in 2007. The former Pennsylvania senator also said that while he was winning election in Pennsylvania in 1994, Romney “ran from Ronald Reagan” and “said he’d be to the left of Ted Kennedy on gay rights, abortion, a whole host of issues” as he tried to unseat the liberal Democratic senator.
Romney, who argues that his experience as a private-equity executive makes him best qualified to lead the country back to prosperity, said he had learned from his experiences in politics, including his 2008 loss to John McCain in the Republican presidential race.
“Frankly, it’s made me more conservative as time goes on,” Romney said.
Ron Paul zeroed in on Romney’s record. “I don’t see how we can do well against Obama if we have any candidate -- that, you know, endorsed -- you know, single-payer [healthcare] systems and TARP bailouts and don't challenge the Federal Reserve. $15 trillion of injection bailing out their friends,” the Texas congressman said, referring to Romney and his background in the financial industry.
Jon Huntsman Jr., running to the left of the field in a longshot bid, reacted sharply after Romney attacked his service as Obama’s ambassador to China and Huntsman’s past praise for the president as “a remarkable leader.”
Huntsman, in his best performance of the debate cycle, responded that “this country is divided … because of attitudes like that,” prompting loud applause from the audience at the Capitol Center for the Arts. “The American people are tired of the partisan division.”
The debate questioners — Meet the Press anchor David Gregory and two veteran local reporters — also got into the act. Romney was asked how he had worked to make good on a 1994 campaign promise to be a voice within the Republican Party to increase support for the gay community.
Romney replied by citing his record of appointing a gay man to his cabinet as governor while reiterating his opposition to same-sex marriage. Pressed by Andy Hiller of Boston’s WHDH-TV to say when he last stood up for gay rights, Romney responded, “Right now.”
Turning to Santorum, who has stirred controversy in recent days with remarks widely seen as hostile to gays, Hiller asked the former senator what he would do if one of his sons informed him he was gay.
“I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it,” Santorum replied, “and do everything to be as good a father to him.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, trailing badly here, in South Carolina and the national polls, drew laughter when he referred back to the best-remembered exchange from the debates when he answered a question about three areas he would cut that might cause pain.