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MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mitt Romney's rivals attacked the Republican presidential front-runner from the opening moments of a campaign debate Saturday night, dismissing him as a mere business manager rather than a leader and a man whose investment company actually cost workers jobs.
Romney retorted that Bain Capital had created 100,000 jobs on balance, and that a businessman's experience was far better to fix the economy that a lifetime spent in Washington DC.
"I'm very proud of the fact that the two enterprises I led were successful," he said, referring to Bain and another firm.
The barbs flew from the opening moments of the debate, the first of two in a weekend doubleheader in the run-up to the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. Romney won the Iowa caucuses earlier in the week by a scant eight votes over former Sen. Rick Santorum and is far ahead in the polls in New Hampshire, making his rivals eager to slow his rise in the race for the nomination.
Santorum went first, dismissing Romney as a manager. "Being a president is not a CEO. You've got to lead and inspire," he said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich followed a few moments later, referring to published accounts in the media that described how some workers were laid off after Bain invested in their companies and sought to turn them around.
He said Romney should be judged on the basis of whether "on balance, were people better off or worse off by this style of management."
The 90-minute encounter crackled with urgency.
Texas Rep. Paul said Santorum was a "big government person" even though he campaigns as a conservative, referring to votes the former Pennsylvania senator cast to raise the debt limit.
Santorum answered that he had played a key role more than 15 years ago in legislation that overhauled the nation's welfare laws.
Paul, who has referred to Gingrich as a "chicken hawk" during the campaign because he speaks for strong defense but didn't serve in the military, was asked if he stood by the statement. "Well he didn't serve," Paul replied.
Gingrich said he never sought a deferment and grew up in a military family. "Dr. Paul makes a lot of comments," he said. "It's part of his style."
Paul got the last word, saying emphatically, "When I was drafted I was married and had two kids, and I went." He was an Air Force surgeon in the Vietnam War era.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry emphasized that he was an outsider. After watching dustups between his rivals, Texas Gov. Rick Perry interjected: "I think you've just seen a great example of why I got in the race....I'm the only outsider," he said.
There were few light moments, and even then one of the six presidential hopefuls on stage sought to turn the back-and-forth to his advantage.
At one point, Paul was interrupted by a bell meant to indicate his talk to speak had expired. "There it goes again," he said.
Santorum replied instantly: "It knows you're not telling the truth."
The intramural skirmishes reflected the state of the race — Romney the acknowledged front-runner under attack from his rivals, who face an increasingly urgent need to emerge as the principal conservative challenger to the former Massachusetts governor.
The debate at Saint Anselm College was the first in more than three weeks, and the first since Michele Bachmann dropped out of the race after a disappointing finish in Iowa this week. The candidates faced a quick turnaround for the second debate, set for Sunday morning in Concord.
Romney has faced intensifying criticism from the other candidates in recent days.
Gingrich, who had promised to run a positive campaign, was the leading agitator and hours before the debate, the former House speaker showed no signs of relenting.
"I do think there's an enormous gap between somebody who is a bold Reagan conservative and somebody who is a timid Massachusetts moderate," Gingrich told voters in Wolfeboro, where Romney has a summer home.
Recent polling gave Romney strong leads in New Hampshire and South Carolina, which hosts the next nominating contest Jan. 21, followed by Florida on Jan. 31. A presidential contender has never won the first three contests.
The candidates have campaign aggressively in New Hampshire, trying to make their case with voters who are notoriously late deciders.
"I'm looking to finalize my decision. The debate will pretty much determine who I'm voting for on Tuesday," said Ed Cormier, 58, of Rochester. "I keep hearing how Romney's the most electable. I like Romney, but he's not my first choice."