Two days before the New Hampshire primary that could make or break his White House candidacy, a combative Mitt Romney quarreled with rivals John McCain and Mike Huckabee over taxes, crime and job experience in a testy Republican debate that exposed growing animosity among the candidates.
Romney's attacks set off a cascade of counter-assaults on the former Massachusetts governor, who has placed enormous stakes on winning here but has slid behind McCain in the polls.
Joining McCain and Huckabee in criticizing Romney was Fred Thompson. "My friend Mitt thinks expertise is important in all areas except national security," the former Tennessee senator scoffed in an exchange over whether senators or governors are better suited for the presidency.
Playing an improbably passive role in the final Republican debate before Tuesday's primary was Rudolph W. Giuliani. He boasted of his toughness as mayor of New York. ("When a Saudi prince handed me a $10-million check and wanted me to use it as a criticism of American foreign policy, I handed that check back to him and told him what to do with it," he said.)
But Giuliani declined to engage any opponents, watching from the sidelines as Romney squabbled with the other three.
The Fox News debate at Saint Anselm College also foreshadowed the clash beyond New Hampshire. Thompson and Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, scuffled over foreign policy; the two are regional favorite sons in South Carolina's Jan. 19 primary.
Thompson faulted Huckabee for describing the Bush administration's foreign policy as "arrogant" and questioned his concern over how the rest of the world viewed the United States.
Thompson also criticized Huckabee for favoring a shutdown of the military detention center for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The suspects "get certain rights if they come here" to the United States, Thompson said.
Huckabee has called for closing Guantanamo, saying that it has become a rallying point for Islamic extremists and that detainees there are treated too gently.
"The truth is, it was too darn good," he said in Sunday's debate. "The conditions down there were amazingly hospitable."
But the debate's immediate drama was the fight for New Hampshire.
Arizona Sen. McCain is counting on victory here to revive his candidacy six months after it nearly collapsed amid overspending and staff cuts. And Romney is banking on a win to help him recover from his loss to Huckabee in the Iowa caucuses Thursday.
The set of the stage reflected the focus of the debate. Giuliani and Thompson were off to the left, and Romney was between Huckabee and McCain.
Despite the sharpness of the exchanges, the candidates stuck to positions they have trotted out over the last several months. The echoes of previous debates showed just how hard it has become for the candidates, beyond Huckabee's rise, to find fresh air -- and fresh points of contrast.
The tussling started on taxes, a crucial issue for Republicans in New Hampshire, a state that is strongly anti-tax.
Romney jabbed at McCain for voting against President Bush's tax cuts. He went on to criticize Huckabee for raising taxes in Arkansas.
Huckabee countered that Romney had raised taxes in Massachusetts, then accused Romney of opposing the Bush tax cuts too. Romney cut him off.
"You make up facts faster than you talk, and that's saying something," Romney said.
As Huckabee tried to explain the context of his state's spending, Romney cut him off again, saying, "That's political speak."
Pushing back, Huckabee accused Romney of defensiveness when challenged.
"Somebody raises a question and you say it's a personal attack," Huckabee said. He added that he raised some taxes in response to a court order to improve education, then told Romney: "Maybe you don't have to obey the court in Massachusetts. I did in Arkansas."
Spilling into the fiscal debate was a fight over who can best change the country's direction. Bridling at Romney's description of him as a Washington insider, McCain said he had fought entrenched interests to save taxpayer money.
"Look, ask Jack Abramoff, who's in prison today, a guy who was a corrupt lobbyist and his friends, if I haven't cut spending," McCain said. "Ask the Air Force and Boeing, where I saved $2 billion -- $2 billion by fighting against a bogus Air Force tanker deal."
Tension arose again on immigration. Romney questioned Huckabee on allowing children of illegal immigrants in Arkansas to pay the same college tuition rates as state residents.
"Mitt, I'm talking to Chris right now, if you don't mind," Huckabee said, referring to moderator Chris Wallace.
"Well, that is actually a question I was going to ask," Wallace said.
"Well, you can ask it," Huckabee said, "but I've decided that you're the moderator of the debate, not Mitt, and he's tried to engage me in this."
Wallace set some of the collisions in motion. He asked Huckabee about his comment before the Iowa caucuses that Romney was running a "dishonest, desperate campaign."
That led to more back-and-forth that stretched from Romney recalling that Huckabee campaign Chairman Ed Rollins said he wanted to "kick my teeth in," to Huckabee mentioning that one of his celebrity supporters, Hollywood tough guy Chuck Norris, was outside.
"If John Wayne was here," Thompson quipped, "I'd have him beat [Norris] up."
When the subject turned to Romney's hard-edged ads, Huckabee called them "misleading." But Romney defended the ads.
"I do think that there's a difference between an attack ad, where people go after somebody based on their character, and describing someone's record," Romney said. "If people think their record or their positions is an attack ad, that's a strange thing."
Then he accused his rivals of attacking him. "Some of the ads that have come back, or some of the words that have come back, have been very different than just talking about issues," Romney said. "Sen. McCain's ad was pretty tough."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times