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A tale of two debates: Mitt Romney endures attacks while Jon Huntsman Jr. hits his stride

Published: Sunday, Jan. 8 2012 11:42 a.m. MST

Supporters of various candidates demonstrate outside the Chubb Theater before a Republican presidential debate Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012, in Concord, N.H.

Associated Press

During a 14-hour window Saturday night and Sunday morning, the six remaining Republican presidential candidates engaged in two televised debates in New Hampshire, where the first-in-the-nation primaries will take place Tuesday.

But despite the close time proximity and identical lineup of participants, the two debates veered in opposite directions: after skating through Saturday completely unscathed, front-runner Mitt Romney had to endure a broad array of vigorous attacks from his foes on Sunday.

Romney in the crosshairs

"Mitt Romney's Republican challengers made a last-ditch effort to take down their party's front-runner in a GOP primary debate Sunday morning, assailing Romney's conservative credentials and his self-description as a political outsider," Alexander Burns wrote for Politico.

"One by one, the rivals lined up against Mr. Romney, the established front-runner, engaging him in some of the most pointed exchanges of the campaign so far," Jim Rutenberg wrote for the New York Times.

Rick Santorum criticized Romney in the early going Sunday for not running for reelection as governor of Massachusetts in 2006. Romney defended that decision by saying, "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."

Shortly thereafter, Newt Gingrich unleashed what Molly Ball at The Atlantic called "the best line of the debate."

"But can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?" Gingrich asked rhetorically. "The fact is … you had a very bad re- election rating, you dropped out of office, you had been out of state for something like 200 days preparing to run for president. You didn't have this interlude of citizenship while you thought about what you do. You were running for president while you were governor."

Despite the unprecedented spate of debate attacks Romney endured, Politico concluded, "If Romney was pushed back on his heels once or twice, there was no sign in the debate of the kind of crushing, self-destructive moment that's likely to prompt a major shift of momentum in the race."

After the debate ended, Romney's senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom invoked a hit song from the 80s to sum up what his candidate had been up against Sunday.

"I think (Romney) did great," Fehrnstrom told the Washington Post. "His opponents came into this debate knowing it was their last chance to attack him and knock him off his game, and they failed. It reminds me a little bit of that old Pat Benatar song, 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot,' except Mitt Romney absorbed their best shots, and I think came out of the process looking stronger."

Huntsman breaks out

Jon Huntsman Jr. likely gave his most spirited and aggressive performance of the debate season Sunday. The Washington Post noted, "Huntsman is getting more airtime during this morning's debate than he probably has in every other previous debate combined."

The Deseret News' Lisa Riley Roche vividly recorded one exchange in particular when the former Utah governor tangled with Romney: "Huntsman said while Romney was raising money for Republican candidates, he was serving his country in Beijing and his sons joined the U.S. Navy. Romney shot back, saying that Republicans serve their country by standing with those who support conservative principles, not by calling Obama 'a remarkable leader' as Huntsman did. Huntsman, though, drew applause by telling the debate moderator, 'Meet the Press' host David Gregory, 'This nation is divided, David, because of attitudes like that.'"

Modicum of redemption for Perry

Texas Gov. Rick Perry drew prolonged laughter and applause from both the audience and his fellow debaters by poking fun at himself for his now-infamous debate flub on Nov. 9 when he couldn't remember which three government agencies he would abolish as president.

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