Republican rivals target Romney at debate

Romney under fire for Bain Capital leadership; Santorum, Paul exchange accusations in 1st debate before New Hampshire vote.

Mitt Romney 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
Mitt Romney 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)
GOFFSTOWN, N.H., - Republican rivals tried to knock front-runner Mitt Romney off his pedestal by questioning his record as a business executive on Saturday at a high-stakes debate days before the key New Hampshire primary election.
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Conservatives Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich wasted little time in attacking Romney at an ABC News debate, seeking to stop the former Massachusetts governor from running away with New Hampshire and possibly getting set to win the Republican nomination to run for US president in November's election.
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At the first of twin debates within 12 hours of each other, Romney calmly fended off his attackers and quietly let them squabble among themselves in a sign he was trying to appear statesman-like and the inevitable winner.
For the most part, Romney kept his sights on Democratic President Barack Obama's handling of the US economy and foreign policy and attempted to make no mistakes that would endanger his lead.
"I don't want to be critical of the people on this stage," Romney said. "This president must be replaced."
Needing to make a move was Santorum, a former US senator from Pennsylvania who rose as a conservative alternative to Romney by almost beating him in Iowa's caucuses last Tuesday.
Santorum said just because Romney has business experience does not mean he is qualified to serve as president.
"We need a leader, someone who can paint a positive vision for this country," said Santorum.
Gingrich, bitter about losing his front-runner status after he was hit with massive attack ads by Romney and his supporters before Iowa, questioned Romney's leadership at Bain Capital.
Romney points to his business experience as a selling point during troubled economic times but his opponents have pointed to his leadership of Bain Capital as a negative. The company sometimes bought troubled companies and restructured them, sometimes resulting in layoffs and facility closures.
"The governor has every right to defend that," said Gingrich, a former House of Representatives speaker. "But I think it's a legitimate part of the debate to say, okay, on balance are people better off by this particular style of investment?"
Romney said in the world of private sector business, sometimes investments work and sometimes they do not.
While Romney has a big lead in New Hampshire, he is more vulnerable in South Carolina, where conservatives dominate the Republican vote and where a conservative like Santorum, Gingrich, Rick Perry or libertarian Congressman Ron Paul hope to make a breakthrough when that southern state votes on Jan. 21.
Santorum and Paul quickly squabbled over government spending. Santorum has come under fire in recent days for a long history of obtaining taxpayer dollars for his home state on what critics call wasteful projects like $500,000 for a polar bear exhibit at the Pittsburgh zoo.
"To say you're a conservative is a stretch but you've convinced a lot of people," Paul told Santorum.
Santorum defended his practices, saying he made sure Pennsylvania got a fair share of the money its taxpayers sent to the federal government and "I don't apologize for that."