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For once, Romney becomes target of GOP rivals at debate

January 08, 2012|By Paul West and Seema Mehta

“It would be those bureaucrats at the Department of Commerce and -- and Energy and Education -- that we're going to do away with,” Perry said, the trifecta he failed to complete in his “oops” moment that seems to have doomed his 2012 chances.

The unusual Sunday morning format was the 15th GOP debate of the campaign. The bare-knuckled assault on Romney was a sharp reversal from previous face-to-face encounters.

All of the trailing candidates were widely criticized Saturday night, in post-debate commentary, for failing to capitalize on one of their last real chances to stop Romney, increasingly seen as the likely nominee. Santorum, in particular, was thought to have muffed a rare opportunity to build on his newfound prominence, after a virtual win in Iowa, by honing his identity as the conservative alternative to the more moderate front-runner.

The debates Saturday and Sunday were staged just 10 hours apart and in different New Hampshire cities, posing something of an endurance test for the candidates.

After the second session ended, Santorum and Perry were headed for South Carolina, a social conservative bastion that holds the first southern primary a week from Saturday. The rest of the contenders scheduled campaign events in New Hampshire leading into Tuesday’s primary.

Santorum has pulled into a tie for second place in national polling with the fading Gingrich. He is hoping to solidify his position as the conservative alternative to Romney, but in New Hampshire polling he’s no better than third behind Paul.

Romney is a prohibitive favorite in New Hampshire, where his lead is roughly 20 percentage points. A Romney victory in South Carolina, where a recent public poll also shows him in the lead, could remove any serious doubt about his ultimate success in the nomination contest.

Party rules, though, dictate a more leisurely decision. It will be April, at the earliest, before any candidate can secure the majority of convention delegates needed to gain the nomination at the GOP National Convention in Tampa in late August.

Many Republicans, including those in the Romney camp, expect one or more of his rivals to continue their campaign beyond the Florida primary on Jan. 31, even if the outcome of the race is no longer in doubt.

The most likely holdout is Rep. Paul, who has a national following and is grooming his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, to inherit his organization.

Paul, who once ran for president on the Libertarian Party ticket, has also refused to commit to supporting the Republican nominee. He repeated Saturday night that if he doesn’t win he is unlikely to bolt the party, but he refused to rule it out entirely.

“I have no intention. But I don't know why a person can't reserve a judgment and see how things turn out,” Paul said.;

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