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Republican debate turns testy

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Moving to grab a clear lead in the Republican presidential contest, Mitt Romney remained above the fray in a televised debate as his opponents chose to badger one another, rather than take on the front-runner.

With the New Hampshire primary three days away — and Romney holding a commanding lead there, as well as in next-up South Carolina — time is running out for someone to slow Romney’s progress. But his rivals’ decision to fight among themselves revived a pattern that has worked to Romney’s advantage — assuming the role of unofficial nominee and focusing his attacks on President Obama.

“Really, this election is about the soul of America,” said Romney, who never appeared ruffled by his rivals or panelist questions at the ABC/Yahoo/WMUR-TV debate Saturday night. “We have in Washington today a president who has put America on a road to decline. Militarily, internationally and domestically, he’s making us into something we wouldn’t recognize.”

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The former Massachusetts governor, in a rare assault on a rival, went after Jon M. Huntsman Jr. after the former U.S. ambassador to China took issue with Romney’s hard-line rhetoric toward that country. Romney noted that Huntsman had been serving the Obama administration in Beijing while others on the debate stage were trying to elect Republican candidates in the 2010 election.

Huntsman, whose personal rivalry with Romney is deep-rooted, responded in Mandarin that Romney “doesn’t quite understand this situation” and said Romney’s get-tough policy toward China would wind up hurting small businesses in America by prompting a trade war. Romney, refusing to back down, shot back that he’d heard that argument for 10 years.

With one exception, the candidates broke little ground on issues during the contest. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was the exception, calling for sending U.S. troops back into Iraq immediately, to quell bloody unrest there since the withdrawal of American forces. Obama, he said, had kowtowed to “his liberal leftist base” and opened the door to Iran moving into Iraq.

“They’re going to move back in, and all of the work that we’ve done, every young man that has lost his life in that country will have been for nothing because we’ve got a president that does not understand what’s going on in that region,” Perry said. None of the other contenders endorsed the idea.

The reticence by the other candidates in taking on Romney was most obvious in the case of Rick Santorum, who earlier in the day said that America needed a leader, not a manager, as its next president. He had to be coaxed by ABC’s Diane Sawyer into acknowledging that he was referring to Romney. Only late in the debate — 11/2 hours in — did Santorum briefly take on Romney by criticizing his past support for an individual healthcare mandate, the Wall Street bailout and a cap-and-trade system to curb global warming.

Newt Gingrich, in response to a question about a scathing film attacking Romney by a “super PAC” that supports Gingrich’s candidacy, halfheartedly said Romney’s record at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he founded, should be scrutinized.

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“If it’s factually accurate, it raises questions,” Gingrich said of the film. Pressed by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos to back up Gingrich’s earlier claim that Romney made money “by bankrupting companies,” the former House speaker referenced an article about job losses at companies taken over by Bain. “That’s their story,” he said.

In one of the sharpest exchanges, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas refused to back down from his characterization of Gingrich as a “chicken hawk” for not serving in the Vietnam War.

“I think people who don’t serve when they could have, they get three or four or even five deferments, they have no right to send our kids off to war,” he said. “I’m trying to stop the wars, but at least I went when they called me up.”

Gingrich countered that Paul was not telling the truth.

“Dr. Paul has a long history saying things that are inaccurate and false. The fact is I never asked for a deferment — I was married with a child,” he said, before adding that, as an “Army brat,” he understood military issues in a personal way. “I think I have a pretty good idea of what it’s like as a family to worry about your father getting killed, and I personally resent the kind of comments and aspersions he routinely makes without adequate information and then just slurs people.”

Paul interjected that he needed to follow up. “When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids and I went,” he said.

Gingrich, reverting to a posture that won him plaudits from voters in earlier debates, also lashed out at the moderators after a series of questions about gay marriage.

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“There’s a lot more anti-Christian bigotry these days and none of it gets covered by the news media,” he said to applause from the audience on the campus of St. Anselm College.

Paul, who is hitting Santorum with ads in South Carolina that call him corrupt, stood by the attack and argued that the former Pennsylvania senator was not a true conservative.

“To say you’re a conservative, I think, is a stretch,” Paul said. “But you’ve convinced a lot of people of it, so somebody has to point out your record.”

Paul criticized Santorum for appearing on a ranking of the most corrupt politicians, taking money from lobbyists, voting to raise the debt ceiling, supporting No Child Left Behind, and other positions.

Santorum countered that the list he appeared on was drawn up by a liberal group. “It’s a ridiculous charge. And you should know better than to cite George Soros-like organizations to say that,” he said.

The former senator said that he had voted in the best interest of his state, and that after he left office he worked on issues that he cared about, including Iran, healthcare and coal.

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The placement of the candidates reflected major changes in the race since the last debate, barely three weeks ago. Santorum was moved from the wings to center stage on the strength of his virtual tie for first in the Iowa caucuses.

Santorum stood beside Romney, all but a favorite son in the state: He owns an expensive vacation house in New Hampshire and governed next-door Massachusetts, but he’s taken nothing for granted. He’s invested millions of dollars in advertising and spent dozens of campaign days here.

The debate, the 14th of the campaign, was part of a rare doubleheader. Exactly 10 hours after it ended, the candidates were due on camera in Concord, the state capital, for yet another network encounter, on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

After Sunday’s debate, the candidates split briefly. Santorum and Perry will travel to South Carolina, where evangelical voters are a stronger component than they are in New Hampshire. Romney will remain in New Hampshire, where he is scheduled to campaign with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of a host of surrogates he has brought in for the closing days. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley campaigned with him Saturdays in New Hampshire.

paul.west@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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