The Mitt Romney flying machine at last took some flak last night in the final debate in the Republican presidential race before tomorrow's key primary election in New Hampshire. His rivals, chafing to bring him down, branded him "timid", "pious" and dishonest in how he had conducted his campaign.
While a debate on Saturday saw the other candidates holding their fire on Mr Romney, by yesterday the mood had changed, or at least become more caffeinated. Defending himself against Rick Santorum's claim that he had not tried for a second term as Governor of Massachusetts by saying he was not a "career politician", Mr Romney was slapped down by Newt Gingrich for going over time. "I realise the red light doesn't mean anything to you because you're the front-runner," Mr Gingrich declared, tartly, before ridiculing what Mr Romney was saying about career politicians. "Let's cut the pious baloney," he said, demanding that the former Governor "level with the American people".
One after another, Mr Gingrich, Mr Santorum and Jon Huntsman climbed into the ring with Mr Romney, who won the Iowa caucuses last week, if only with eight votes more than Mr Santorum. Also feisty was Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman, who may come second in New Hampshire tomorrow.
Mr Romney, who has a summer home in New Hampshire, remains far ahead in the state's polls. Greater attention will be paid tomorrow to how his closest rivals fare and where the field is left ahead of primary voting on Saturday week in South Carolina – a southern state that may give the conservative wing of the party its last best chance to halt the Romney train.
For Mr Huntsman, a former Utah Governor and, until a few months ago, President Barack Obama's ambassador in China, tomorrow is the night that will make or break his candidacy. As a moderate who does not have strong conservative bona fides, he has struggled to convey a distinct message. But one poll at the weekend by the American Research Group placed him in a virtual tie for second with Mr Paul.
Mr Huntsman dived right in yesterday, lambasting Mr Romney for remarks he made about his decision to serve the Obama White House in China. "America is divided because of attitudes like that," he told Mr Romney. But it was Mr Gingrich who, not for the first time, ignited the testiest exchanges. Part of that anger has stemmed from critical advertisements aired by an independent group backing Mr Romney in Iowa that dramatically dragged down the former Speaker's numbers.
Forced to defend himself, Mr Romney replied: "Speaker, I can't direct their ads. If there's anything that is wrong, I hope they take it out." He went on: "I would not call you some of the things you've called me in public," in a reference to Mr Gingrich having called him a "liar". "I think that's over the top."
It was a catfight before a national television audience that did little for either man but surely thrilled those watching at Mr Obama's Chicago HQ. While Mr Romney mostly survives the assaults of his foes, they often leave him looking awkward on stage. A microphone left switched on just after the debate ended caught him quipping to his son, Matt, "Oh, it's fun isn't it?"
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