Republican presidential candidates U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX)(L) and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney participate in a Republican presidential debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, January 7, 2012. (Photo:Reuters)
Assailed on his business background, Republican US presidential candidate Mitt Romney made no major stumbles and often stood, hands in his trouser pockets and an amused smile on his face, as his would-be challengers ripped each other up in the prime-time contest.
The former Massachusetts senator and millionaire venture capitalist, eyeing a victory here Tuesday and in South Carolina on 21 January, kept his fire trained on the man he aimed to take on in November -- President Barack Obama.
"His policies have made the recession deeper, and his policies have made the recovery more tepid," Romney said at the outset of the 90-minute debate, the first of a pair barely 12 hours apart ahead of the primary here Tuesday.
His more conservative rivals, seeing time run out to deny him the nomination, took aim at Romney's financier past, noting that his Bain Capital firm made hefty profits after dismantling firms and laying off thousands of workers.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich accused him of embracing "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 workers."
"Business experience doesn't necessarily match up with being the commander-in-chief of this country," said former senator Rick Santorum, a Christian conservative who has recently surged in the polls.
"The commander-in-chief of this country isn't a CEO," said Santorum, who lost the Iowa caucus to Romney by just eight votes out of 120,000 cast and hopes for a similar miracle here and in South Carolina.
The six candidates were due to square off again at 9:00 am (1400 GMT) Sunday.
Representative Ron Paul, a small-government champion who opposes overseas military interventions and is running a strong second here, engaged other candidates -- but not Romney -- in several sharp-worded duels.
Paul, who has represented Texas in Washington for 20 years defended a recent attack on Santorum as "corrupt," accusing him of being "a big-government person" who made a fortune as "a high-powered lobbyist in Washington."
"I got involved in causes that I believe in," the former lawmaker shot back.
Former US China envoy Jon Huntsman and Romney twice dueled on foreign policy, first on when US troops should return from Afghanistan, and then on the proper approach to US relations with China.
"I believe it's time to come home," declared Huntsman, who said most US forces should leave by late 2013 but added that he would leave about 10,000 for counter-terrorism efforts.
Romney shot back "that would put in jeopardy much of the hard earned success which we've had there" and said he would listen "to the commanders on the ground."
Huntsman countered by noting US military commanders had argued for escalating the Vietnam War in 1967 and warned "civil war is around the corner in Afghanistan. And I don't want to be the president who invests another penny in a civil war."
They also clashed sharply over taking on China, with Romney arguing Huntsman betrayed Republicans by serving as Obama's first ambassador to Beijing and Huntsman countering in Mandarin Chinese.
"He doesn't quite understand this situation," the former diplomat said, first in Mandarin, then in English.
Debates -- more than a dozen of them -- have played an unusually large role in the fight to be the Republican standard-bearer against Obama on November 6, feeding surges and dealing crushing blows to the other candidates.
A new daily tracking poll by Suffolk University found Romney in the lead here with 39 percent support -- down from 43 percent three days ago -- Representative Ron Paul at 17 percent, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich at 10 percent.
Santorum was at nine percent, seemingly stalled after battling Romney to a near draw in Iowa, while Huntsman was also at nine percent.
Perry trailed at one percent, and 15 percent of the likely voters in the Republican primary surveyed were still undecided, leaving the race still fluid and making turnout critical.
The debates could shape Tuesday's vote, which may drive one or more candidates from the race, resetting a field that has been led alternately by Romney and successive conservatives who have surged and fallen back.