CONCORD, N.H. — Republican rivals ganged up on front runner Mitt Romney in a nationally televised debate Sunday, their last high-profile chance to challenge his lead in New Hampshire and slow his momentum toward the nomination. "Pious baloney," one candidate sneered at Romney.
Romney appeared to brush off the broadsides, but there were signs of restlessness in the notoriously fickle state as one poll showed his support slipping for the fourth straight day, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas still far behind but gaining, and former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah moving from obscurity into third place.
The Suffolk University/7News tracking poll showed the former Massachusetts governor with the support of 35 percent of likely voters, Paul with 20, Huntsman with 11 percent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 9 percent, former Sen. Rick Santorum with 8 percent, and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas with 1 percent. Fifteen percent were undecided.
"It's a New Hampshire primary, it's January, and here we go again," said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, in a statement.
"Romney's strategy of running out the clock is costing him margin, Huntsman is still fighting hard and beginning to rally, and New Hampshire is playing contrarian to Rick Santorum, the Iowa Caucus star of a week ago, who has dropped to fifth place."
The poll came out as the six top candidates squared off Sunday morning for the second time in two days.
While Paul again largely did not take on Romney, the three candidates jockeying for third place took turns bashing the former governor with a zeal not seen in any of the previous 14 debates.
Gingrich unleashed his most pointed indictment of Romney yet, saying he was a poor governor with a moderate record who would be a weak standard bearer for the Republicans against President Barack Obama.
"President Obama is going to have a very hard re-election effort. But I do think the bigger the contrast, the bolder ideas, the clearer the choice, the harder it is for that billion-dollar campaign to smear his way back into office," Gingrich said. Romney, he said, "will have a very hard time getting ...elected."
Romney defended his record, saying he cut taxes 19 times in his one term as governor, balanced the budget, created a $2 billion rainy day fund and created jobs.
He also said he's a stronger candidate because he's not a career politician, just a public-minded businessman who has only sought office when he thought he could help.
"I went to Massachusetts to make a difference. I didn't go there to begin a political career, running time and time again," he said. "I was trying to help get the state into the best shape as I possibly could, left the world of politics, went back into business.
"Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?" Gingrich snapped back. "You have been running consistently for years and years and years."
Santorum jumped in as well, saying Romney ran his first campaign as a liberal against the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, lost, and then stepped down after his one term as governor only because he would have lost that race.
"If his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts, why didn't he run for re-election? I mean, if you didn't want to even stand before the people of Massachusetts and run on your record, if it was that great, why did you bail out?" Santorum asked.
"I go and fight the fight," added Santorum, who lost his last re-election in 2006.
Huntsman took a swipe at Romney as well for challenging Huntsman's service as ambassador to China under Obama.
"He criticized me, while he was out raising money, for serving my country in China," Huntsman said. "Yes, under a Democrat. Like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They're not asking what political affiliation the president is."
Romney responded that he did not criticize Huntsman for agreeing when Obama asked him to be ambassador. However, Romney said, Huntsman's service under Obama, plus comments praising Obama, disqualify him as the Republican alternative.
Romney brushed aside many of the other criticisms and questions.
At one point, he responded to Santorum, saying, "A lot of things were inaccurate in that, and I'm not going to go through them one by one." At another, he declined to talk about a federal rule regulating air pollution that crosses from state to state — a big issue in New England — saying, "I'm not familiar with the specific regulation as it as it applies to New Hampshire."
Romney did strike back at Gingrich, defending an anti-Gingich ad run in Iowa by Romney supporters.
While he insisted he had nothing to do with it and by law cannot interfere with the independent group, he said the ad was accurate in saying that Gingrich was forced out as speaker, that he'd made an ad with Democrat Nancy Pelosi urging climate change legislation, that he called Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal a "right-wing social engineering plan" and that he was fined $300,000 for an ethics violation.
"Those things were all true," Romney said, adding that Gingrich should expect criticism in a campaign. "This ain't beanbag."
"I don't see any evidence that these attacks are having any effect," Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said in an interview afterward.
"His opponents came into today's debate knowing it was their last chance to attack him and throw him off their game and they failed. It reminds me of that old Pat Benatar song, 'Hit Me with Your Best Shot.' Except Mitt Romney absorbed their best shots and came out stronger."
Huntsman, who skipped Iowa to focus entirely on New Hampshire, hoped his work was finally paying off, much as Santorum's long, personal campaigning in Iowa paid off with a strong surge at the end.
"We're looking for a strong finish," Huntsman campaign manager Matt David said Sunday. "If you look at the polls, it shows we're heading in the right direction."
All but ignoring Huntsman and all the rest, Romney was upbeat when he appeared after the morning debate, addressing about 300 people including much of his family at the Opera House in Rochester, New Hampshire.
Audience members ranged from quite enthusiastic to lukewarm and undecided.
"He's the only one who can beat Obama," said Lillian McCullough, a Rochester retiree.
Timothy Riley, a retail supply coordinator from Somersworth, was undecided. But he rejected the idea of a surge for Huntsman. "I've never heard of him," Riley said.
Follow Steven Thomma on Twitter
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY: