Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. speaks to a coffeehouse crowd at a campaign… (Evan Vucci, Associated…)
Reporting from Concord, N.H. — Picking up where they finished hours before, the Republican presidential hopefuls sparred across two states Sunday as they vied to slow front-runner Mitt Romney ahead of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.
At a pugnacious morning debate in New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum took shots at Romney's performance as Massachusetts governor and his depiction of himself as a businessman first and politician second.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., smarting from a Saturday night exchange over his service as President Obama's ambassador to China, chided Romney for failing to appreciate Huntsman's sense of duty.
Likening his service to that of his two sons in the Navy, Huntsman said: "They are not asking what the affiliation of the president is. I want to be clear: I will always put my country first."
Romney was unyielding. "I just think most likely that the person who should represent our party running against President Obama is not someone who called him a 'remarkable leader' and went to be his ambassador in China," Romney said.
"This country is divided because of attitudes like that," Huntsman shot back, drawing applause from the audience inside the Capitol Center for the Arts.
Romney faced other uncomfortable moments.
Andy Hiller, a veteran Boston TV reporter and debate co-moderator, resurrected a quote from Romney's failed 1994 U.S. Senate run against incumbent Democrat Edward M. Kennedy. How, Hiller asked, had Romney fulfilled his pledge to make the Republican Party more gay-friendly?
Romney said he had a gay Cabinet member and appointed people to the bench "regardless of their sexual orientation."
"If people are looking for someone ... who will discriminate against gays or will in any way try and suggest that people that have different sexual orientation don't have full rights in this country, they won't find that in me."
Turning to Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania who has made controversial remarks about gays and same-sex marriage, Hiller asked what he would do if one of his sons told him he was gay. "I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it," Santorum replied.
Romney still appears to hold a solid lead in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, making the fight for second place — and continued viability in the GOP race — crucial for others in the field, as they head next to South Carolina. The state votes Jan. 21.
Santorum, who trails Ron Paul in New Hampshire, renewed his jousting with the Texas congressman. Referring to Paul's tightfisted fiscal policies and isolationist foreign policy, Santorum said, "All the things that Republicans like about him he can't accomplish, and all the things they're worried about he'll do Day One."
Paul said failure to pass his bills showed Congress was out of touch. As for foreign policy, he reiterated his assertion that the U.S. was overstretched. "We cannot have 900 bases overseas," Paul said. "We have to change policy."
The debate also was notable for something unusual in this highly charged political season: a rare discussion of bipartisanship. Asked what they would do to move the country past its deep partisan breach, several of the candidates cited their prior work across party lines.
Romney touted the relationships he forged in the overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts Legislature (though he made no mention of the healthcare plan passed as one of the fruits of that relationship). Santorum mentioned welfare reform passed in concert with the Clinton administration, as did Gingrich.
"You have to at some point say, 'The country comes first. How are we going to get things done?' " said Gingrich, the former House speaker. "It can be done with real leadership."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry made glancing reference to one of the greatest embarrassments of his stumbling campaign, the failure in a prior debate to remember all three federal agencies he would eliminate.
Perry said he would target "those bureaucrats at the Department of Commerce and Energy and Education," flashing three fingers to his rivals down the line of lecterns. Santorum grinned and flashed back three fingers.
After the debate, candidates began the headlong rush to Tuesday's vote. Romney used an appearance in Rochester to suggest that — despite his great personal wealth — he was no stranger to the economic anxiety many Americans feel.
"I've learned what it is to sign the front of a paycheck, not just the back of a paycheck, and to know how frightening it is to see whether you can make payroll at the end of the week," said Romney, who made millions helping run companies. "I know what it's like to worry whether you're going to get fired."
Later, Romney appeared in Exeter alongside New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, drawing one of the largest crowds he has seen in the state.
In South Carolina, Perry delivered a fire-and-brimstone appeal to evangelical voters, who will be a pivotal force in the Republican race. Opening a two-week tour across the state where he started his campaign in August and now hopes to revive it, Perry repeatedly invoked his Christian faith in remarks at a Spartanburg diner.
Faith in Christ, Perry said, was part of what led him to resume his campaign after a brief reassessment prompted by his drubbing in Iowa. "When you find that peace from God, you stop worrying about what the critics say," Perry said.
Campaigning in Greenville, S.C., at a crowded Republican fundraiser, Santorum picked up the endorsement of Gary Bauer, a conservative activist and president of the group American Values.
Times staff writers Michael Finnegan in Spartanburg, S.C., Seema Mehta in Manchester, N.H., Michael Memoli in Hampstead, N.H., and Alana Semuels in Greenville, S.C., contributed to this report.