Romney's rivals sharpen attacks in a battle for second in New Hampshire

In a back and forth with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman at a debate in New Hampshire Sunday morning, Mitt Romney said, “I think we serve our country first by standing for people that believe in conservative principles.”

With that statement, Romney comically made a case against his candidacy. First, Romney has not believed in conservative principles, even running away from Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America when he was running for Senate in Massachusetts. And by casting himself as someone who believed in conservative principles, Romney again opened himself up to questions about his authenticity. 

The exchange that preceded those comments revolved around Huntsman’s service to his country under President Barack Obama, whom he served as Ambassador to China.

Huntsman said that while Romney was raising money, he was serving his country just like his two children in military are.

“This nation is divided David, because of attitudes like that,” Huntsman said in reply to Romney’s criticism of his service. “The American people are tired of the partisan division, they have had enough. There is no trust left among the American people and the institutions of power”

“The fundamental difference in this campaign is that Governor Huntsman puts country first, and Mitt Romney puts politics first,” Huntsman campaign manager Matt David said immediately after the debate. “Governor Huntsman has served his country under four presidents, while Mitt Romney has changed positions on nearly every major issue of the last two decades.”

Romney was also attacked by Gingrich, who told him to stop the “pious baloney” when Romney tried to portray himself as a candidate who has been outside of politics his entire career.

Rick Santorum also asked Romney why he did not run for re-election when he was the governor of Massachusetts.

But is all this too late for New Hampshire, where Romney is leading despite a late surge from Huntsman, who moved into second in the most recent American Research Group poll that was released last night.

If Huntsman finishes second, is there a path for him to get the nomination if Romney is not knocked out?  (Huntsman’s best chance is to eliminate Romney and inherit the latter’s path to the nomination.)

If Paul finishes second, is there a path for him to get the nomination by organizing the caucus states when he most likely will do poorly in South Carolina and his campaign seems to have conceded the Florida primary?

If Gingrich or Santorum finish second and come out of New Hampshire into friendlier South Carolina with a head of steam, will they have the organization to beat Romney? And can they even do so when two other candidates (Perry will try to use South Carolina to emerge as the chief Romney rival) are battling to be the “anti-Romney” and splitting up those crucial votes in the process?

On Sunday, Perry honed in on his message for South Carolina, saying that, “we need a candidate that can not only draw that stark contrast between themselves and Barack Obama, but also stand up and lead the Tea Party movement back.”

“We have a president that’s a socialist; I don’t think our Founding Fathers wanted America to be a socialist country,” Perry said. “I disagree with that  … somehow or another … that President Obama reflects our Founding Fathers.  He doesn’t.  He talks about having a more powerful, more centralized, more consuming and costly federal government.”

Santorum tried to cut Ron Paul down to make himself more viable in South Carolina, where he will be endorsed by social conservatives luminaries such as Gary Bauer.

“The problem with Congressman Paul is all the things that Republicans like about him he can’t accomplish and all the things they’re worried about he’ll do day one,” Santorum said. “That’s the problem … What we need to do is have someone who has a plan and has experience to do all the things Republicans and conservatives would like to do.”

Paul, steady as he goes, continued to preach his message of liberty, saying he would continue “preaching the gospel of liberty” throughout the campaign.

“I think that the most important ingredient in this country that made us great was that our founders understood what liberty meant,” Paul said. “We have deserted that.  We have drifted a long way.  It involved our right to our life, right to our liberty.  We ought to be able to keep the fruits of our labor.  We ought to understand property rights.  We ought to understand contract rights.  We ought to understand what sound money is all about.”

But it was Huntsman who stood out in this debate.

He said that the “first press conference I had when I ran for governor in 2004 was on ethics in government service.” He said he talked about term limits, campaign finance reform, and the toxic role of lobbyists.

“I had one member of the legislature who supported me in that run,” Huntsman said. “We won because we had the will of the people.  And I believe the next president, and if that is to be me, I want to roam around this country and I want to  generate the level of excitement and enthusiasm that I know exists among the American people to bring term limits to Congress.  To close the revolving door on members going right on out and becoming a lobbyist.  We’ve gotta start with the structural problems.  There is no trust.”

Huntsman has spent the last three months at nearly 150 events in New Hampshire. And two days before voters decide the fate of his candidacy, Huntsman finally seems to be combining his message of eliminating the country’s economic deficit and trust deficit by combating the culture of crony capitalism while also contrasting himself boldly with Romney, a candidate Huntsman’s campaign has tagged as someone who puts politics first, while Huntsman puts honesty and country first.

But, as is the case with every other candidate, there are two lingering questions.

What took so long?

And, is it too late?


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