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Elise Amendola, Associated Press
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, left, listens to Texas Gov. Rick Perry answer a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012.

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mitt Romney brushed aside rivals' criticism Saturday night in the opening round of a weekend debate doubleheader that left his Republican presidential campaign challengers squabbling among themselves far more than trying to knock the front-runner off stride.

Three days before the first in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, Romney largely ignored his fellow Republicans and turned instead on President Barack Obama. "His policies have made the recession deeper and his policies have made the recovery more tepid," he said, despite a declining unemployment rate and the creation of 200,000 jobs last month.

Over the course of the lively two-hour debate, there were attacks aplenty as Romney's five rivals vied to emerge as his principal rival in the primaries ahead. The former Massachusetts governor won an eight-vote victory in the Iowa caucuses last Tuesday, and is far ahead in the pre-primary polls in New Hampshire.

That leaves his pursuers little time to stop his rise and focusing their efforts on the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21

Texas Rep. Ron Paul assailed Rick Santorum as a "big government person," an allegation the former Pennsylvania senator disputed. Santorum finished a close second to Romney in Iowa this week, with Paul coming in third.

Paul, who has called former House Speaker Newt Gingrich a "chicken hawk" who has not served in the military, drew withering criticism in return. "I personally resent the kinds of comments and aspersions he routinely makes," Gingrich said.

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.