MERRIMACK, N.H. — Mitt Romney was in the crosshairs from the get-go during Sunday morning’s NBC News — Facebook GOP primary debate in New Hampshire.
Attacked much more regularly and with far more venom than during Saturday night’s ABC News – Yahoo News! debate, the former Massachusetts governor and front-runner was hit from all sides, and by nearly all his nomination rivals, especially at the beginning of the 90-minute contest.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich hit Romney first at the very opening of the debate in response to moderator David Gregory’s question of why Romney shouldn’t be the GOP nominee?
“I think what Republicans have to ask is who’s most likely in the long run — to survive against the kind of billion-dollar campaign the Obama team is gonna run,” Gingrich said. “And I think that a bold Reagan conservative with a very strong economic plan is a lot more likely to succeed in that campaign than a relatively timid Massachusetts moderate who even the Wall Street Journal said had an economy plan so timid it resembled Obama’s.” (RELATED: Newt hits Romney: ‘Could we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?’ [Video])
Former Sen. Rick Santorum was next on deck to take a swing at Romney.
“Well, if his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts, why didn’t he run for re-election?” Santorum asked.
“I mean, if you didn’t wanna even stand before the people of Massachusetts and run on your record. If it was that great … why did you bail out?”
Contrasting his successful 1994 Pennsylvania Senate run with Romney’s unsuccessful Massachusetts Senate run the same year, Santorum said he ran on conservative principles while Romney’s ran as a moderate.
“I stood up and fought for the conservative principles,” he said. “I didn’t do what Gov. Romney did in 1994. I was running the same year he ran in 1994. I ran in a tough state of Pennsylvania against an incumbent.”
During his first response of the evening, Huntsman ignored the question he was asked and immediately pounced on Romney.
“I was criticized last night by Gov. Romney for putting my country first,” he said.
“I just wanna remind the people here in New Hampshire and throughout the United States that … he criticized me, while he was out raising money, for serving my country in China. Yes, under a Democrat. Like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They’re not asking what political affiliation the president is. I wanna be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and this country. I will always put my country first. And I think that’s important to them.”
Romney responded, saying, “I just think it’s 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.”
Huntsman fired back, saying, “This nation is divided, David, because of attitudes like that.”
Santorum and Texas Gov. Ron Paul also got into a heated exchange during the debate.
“The problem with Congressman Paul is 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,” Santorum said.
“One of the reasons people like Congressman Paul is his economic plan,” Santorum explained.
“The problem is that what Congressman Paul can do as commander-in-chief is he can, on day one, do what he says he wants to do, which is pull all our troops back [from] overseas … Leave us in a situation where the world is now gonna be created huge amounts of vacuums all over the place.”
“It’s not exactly a simple task to repeal approximately 100 years of us sliding away from our republic and still running a foreign policy of Woodrow Wilson, trying to make the world safe for democracy,” Paul responded.
“We can’t stay in 130 countries, get involved in nation building. We cannot have 900 bases overseas. We have to change policy.”
During the debate, Suffolk University/7-News released their latest New Hampshire tracking poll showing Romney slipping to 35 percent, though still maintaining a commanding lead over second place Paul at 20 percent. Gingrich, Huntsman and Santorum are all within the margin of error of each other and currently vying for third.
The New Hampshire primary takes place Tuesday.