MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mitt Romney criticized rivals on taxes and defended his ads attacking them in an often-heated debate Sunday that offered voters the last chance to see candidates facing off before New Hampshire votes Tuesday in the nation's first primary.
The former Massachusetts governor smiled and laughed throughout the two-hour televised debate, but his jabs underscored his quest to regain the lead he long enjoyed here and avoid losing his second contest in a row.
His chief rival in the state, Arizona Sen. John McCain, repeatedly passed up opportunities to engage Romney as he'd done in the previous days, apparently hoping to close out the final days on an upbeat note.
But the other target of his barbs, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, appeared to be more perturbed. Huckabee defeated Romney last week in Iowa, but trails in third place in New Hampshire.
Romney went after the two right from the outset, criticizing McCain for opposing the Bush tax cuts and Mike Huckabee for raising taxes while governor of Arkansas.
"Senator McCain was one of two Republicans who voted against the Bush tax cuts," Romney said. "Senator McCain continues to believe... that that was the right vote to take, and I respect that that's his view. I just happen to disagree with it."
Turning to Huckabee, he said, "you raised taxes by half a billion dollars."
McCain boasted that he supported Ronald Reagan's tax cuts in the 1980s because Reagan also demanded spending cuts — though Reagan actually never got the spending cuts he wanted the budget deficit soared.
McCain said he opposed the Bush tax cuts because they were not paired with spending cuts. "We let spending out of control," he said.
Huckabee said he lowered taxes.
"You make up facts faster than you talk," Romney cracked.
Then, when Romney pressed Huckabee several times to answer whether he had raised taxes, Huckabee responded that he "raised jobs."
"That's political speak," Romney said.
Huckabee said he was under court order to raise taxes to finance education.
"I had a court order that said we had to improve education. Maybe you don't have to obey the court in Massachusetts, I did in Arkansas," Huckabee said. "You know, education is a good thing for kids."
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani jumped in to the tax debate as well, saying he cut taxes and denying that some tax cuts were enacted over his opposition.
Turning to the tone of the campaign, McCain declined an invitation from moderator Chris Wallace to say that Romney's ads are lies.
"These are attack ads. I don't think they work," McCain said. "I'm running a positive campaign."
Huckabee also declined to repeat his accusation that Romney's ads prove he's "desperate."
He noted that he canceled an ad in Iowa counterattacking Romney and said that decision contributed to his victory there because people "want a president who's for something, not just against the other people."
Romney defended his ads. "I do think there's a difference between an attack ad...and describing someone's record," he said. "We verified the facts...then let people compare the differences."