MANCHESTER, N.H. - Mitt Romney coolly defended his solid New Hampshire lead Saturday night in a high-stakes debate as his rivals took aim at each other as they struggled to emerge as Romney's main challenger.
The six candidates fought, sometimes bitterly, over leadership qualities, job creation, military backgrounds, and a host of other issues three days before the nation's first presidential primary here.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who has a huge lead in New Hampshire polls, defended his role as a businessman and emerged from the debate largely unscathed. His opponents largely fired at each other, not him, and he concentrated his criticism on Barack Obama, cultivating his camp's contention that he's the Republican most able to defeat the Democratic incumbent.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who surged into a virtual tie with Romney in Tuesday's Iowa caucuses, promoted his record of working in Congress on issues such as Iran as a better model for presidential leadership than Romney's record as a private-equity capitalist.
"Business experience doesn't necessarily match up with being the commander-in-chief," Santorum said, referring to Romney. "The commander-in-chief of this country isn't a CEO."
Romney, co-founder of the Bain Capital investment firm, responded firmly and deliberately.
"People who spend a lot of time in Washington don't understand what happens in the real economy," he said. "They think people who start businesses are just managers... Those people are leaders. My experience is in leadership."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also went after Romney's record at Bain, a firm that invested in other businesses, sometimes forcing job layoffs.
"I'm not nearly as enamored of a Wall Street model where you can flip companies, you can go in and have leveraged buyouts, you can basically take out all the money, leaving behind the worker," Gingrich said.
"It always pained me" to downsize a business to make it financially successful, Romney said. But overall, he added, the businesses his firm invested in "have now added more than 100,000 jobs.
Co-sponsored by Yahoo News and televised on ABC from Saint Anselm College, the two-hour debate was the first of a two-debate weekend showdown. The same group debates Sunday for 90 minutes on NBC's "Meet the Press." The first hour will be televised.
Together, the debates offered Romney a chance to solidify his overwhelming double-digit lead in the state, and a last chance for all the others to become the single conservative alternative before the race heads south to South Carolina, which votes on Jan. 21.
Polls show Romney with about 41 percent in New Hampshire, followed by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas with 20 percent. After that, it's a three-way fight for third between Santorum with 11 percent and Gingrich and former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah each with 9 percent. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who's not campaigning in the state, trails with 1 percent.
The night's most aggressive exchanges did not involve Romney. Instead, Paul attacked Gingrich and Santorum sharply and persistently.
Paul echoed his earlier charge that Gingrich was a "chicken hawk" for supporting sending young people to war after not serving himself during the Vietnam War.
Gingrich was offended, saying that he was "an Army brat" whose family experience gives him "a pretty good sense of what military families and veterans' families need."
Paul wouldn't relent. "I think people who don't serve when they could and they get three or four or even five deferments aren't -- they -- they have no right to send our kids off to war, and -- and not be even against the wars that we have. I'm trying to stop the wars, but at least, you know, I went when they called me up," he said.
Gingrich punched back. "Dr. Paul has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false," he charged. "The fact is, I never asked for deferment. I was married with a child. It was never a question."
Paul kept up the heat. When he was drafted, he said, "I was married and had two kids, and I went."
Santorum, who took center stage for the first time since he came within 8 votes of Romney in Iowa, also took fire from Paul.
"You're a big spender, that's all there is to it. You're a big-government conservative," Paul said, hitting Santorum for voting to increase the debt limit and supporting "earmarks," the special appropriations for a single state often derided as pork-barrel spending.
"I had a responsibility as a senator from Pennsylvania to go there and represent the interests of my state," Santorum said. "I don't apologize for that."
The biggest applause of the night came when Gingrich, after a discussion about gay marriage, turned the topic to what he called a different kind of bigortry.
Gingrich slammed pro-gay marriage advocates for moving against the Catholic Church, including Catholic Charities, because the church does not accept gay marriage.
"The bigotry question goes both ways. And there's a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is concerning the other side. And none of it gets covered by the news media."
Once the applause died down, Romney said 'me too.'
"As you can tell," Romney said, "the people in this room feel that Speaker Gingrich is absolutely right and I do too."
Follow Steven Thomma on Twitter
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY:
McClatchy Newspapers 2012