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In Republican debate tonight, Romney, Santorum have targets on backs

GOP rivals to Iowa caucus winners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are expected to take off the gloves in Republican debate tonight and follow-up one Sunday in New Hampshire. 

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With at least 1 in 3 New Hampshire voters undecided ahead of Tuesday's first-in-the-nation GOP presidential primary, back-to-back debates this weekend could provide opportunity for the emergence of a clear alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney.

The former governor of Massachusetts comes into Saturday night’s debate with a lead of at least 20 percentage points – and a target on his back. 

So does former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who in an 11th-hour surge fell nine votes short of winning the Iowa caucuses but who is only beginning to face the withering fire rivals dish out to front-runners. He can probably expect to see more of that in a nationally televised debate Saturday night and in a second matchup Sunday morning.

Recommended: Five big moments in New Hampshire primary history

“The first rule in any debate is to do no harm,” says Tom Rath, a senior Romney campaign adviser in New Hampshire. Mr. Romney, who has built his campaign around jobs and the economy, can be expected to stick to those themes. “He is not going to get an answer wrong,” says Mr. Rath. “This state knows him so well.”

Mr. Santorum is just emerging on the radar screen of most voters here, despite making more than 100 visits to the Granite State in the runup to the primary. Having been drawn into spats with New Hampshire audiences over issues such as gay marriage, in this weekend's debates Santorum needs to avoid mistakes and convince conservatives, especially in upcoming primary states of South Carolina and Florida, that he is a credible alternative to Romney – and capable of holding his own against President Obama.

"There are going to be two debates in 16 hours," says Bill Cahill, cochairman of the Santorum campaign in New Hampshire. "In tonight's debate voters are going to see Rick Santorum, for the first time, in the center of the stage standing shoulder to shoulder with Mitt Romney. That's going to help a lot. He won't be at the edge of the stage, and people will pay more attention." 

Saturday's debate begins at 9 p.m. Eastern time on ABC; it will stream live on ABCNews.com. Sunday's takes place at 9 a.m., and it will be broadcast during local time slots for NBC's "Meet the Press." It will be livestreaming on NBC Politics.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who opted not to compete in the New Hampshire primary but will take part in the debates, this week unveiled an ad campaign slamming Santorum for spending on earmarks, or member projects, during his years in Congress. It’s a charge also leveled by GOP rival Ron Paul and Sen. John McCain, a two-time New Hampshire GOP primary winner and 2008 Republican presidential nominee, who endorsed Romney on Wednesday.

In a preview of likely exchanges in this weekend’s debates, Santorum defended his earmarks as a duty of any elected official to promote the interests of constituents.

“I represented the interests of the state of Pennsylvania,” he said at a town-hall meeting in Dublin, N.H., on Friday. “There are men and women who have an improved quality of life, and maybe are alive, because we did that.”

Moreover, earmarks barely register as a cause of America’s soaring deficits. The key fight for fiscal conservatives is entitlement reform, Santorum adds. Once an untouchable "third rail" in American politics, Social Security reform is an issue he is eager to address in stops around the state. At a senior center in Brentwood, N.H., on Wednesday, Santorum told his audience that higher-income seniors could expect to see their benefits cut in a Santorum administration, in favor of helping younger workers.

In 1937, the poorest Americans were those over 65 years of age. Now, it’s younger workers, he said. “Do we say to younger workers that we’re going to tax you more to give a high income to seniors? I have a hard time seeing that is fair,” he added. “I think Franklin Roosevelt would have a hard time seeing that as fair.”

In addition to taking the fight to Santorum and other GOP rivals, Governor Perry must avoid the gaffes and memory lapses in previous debates that have sunk his prospects.

Polling at No. 2 in New Hampshire, Congressman Paul, of Texas, is expected to reprise his attack ads on the “record of betrayal” of Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, especially on their votes to expand government spending and raise the national debt limit. Paul says the debates are what have produced the “nice crowds” that follow him around the country, and that he doesn’t expect to do anything differently in these next two.

“The message is what counts,” he told reporters as he landed at the Nashua, N.H., airport on Friday. “Of course I can always improve my ability to deliver the message, but good crowds make it easy for me.”

Mr. Gingrich, the most formidable debater in GOP events to date, can be expected to take the fight over the future of the Republican Party straight to the front-runner, Romney.

“There will be a great debate in the Republican Party before we are prepared to have a great debate with Barack Obama,” he said, after the Iowa caucus results dropped him from leader to No. 4.  

On Friday, Gingrich convened a “Don’t ‘Mass up” New Hampshire” rally in Salem, N.H., in a bid to define Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate.” After taking a drubbing from negative ads from Romney supporters and the Paul campaign in Iowa, Gingrich will come out swinging in Saturday night’s debate, some analysts predict. But Gingrich told the Monitor that “telling the truth calmly” is as far as he needs to go.

For Jon Huntsman Jr., former US ambassador to China and former Utah governor, the debates are one last shot at gaining some momentum in New Hampshire, where he has focused his efforts since shifting headquarters here at the end of September. A strong showing Tuesday is his only path to the presidency.

“I want your vote,” he told a few hundred voters at town-hall meeting in Newport, N.H., on Friday. “When you ask someone for their vote, you ask for their trust…. We’ve got to begin a journey to get out of the hole we’re in.”

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