Updated at 10:55 pm ET
With the New Hampshire primary two days away, six Republican contenders for the presidency met for the first of two back-to-back debates Saturday night, with front-runner Mitt Romney taking a little bit of the rhetorical heat late in the nearly two-hour event. But none of his rivals managed to land any truly damaging blows.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who looked for a bounce out of his virtual tie in Iowa, did mention in passing Romney's support for an individual mandate to buy health insurance and Romney's support for the bailout of financial firms in the fall of 2008, but didn't press Romney on these points.
Santorum also tried to attack Romney early in the debate by alluding to his business career at the investment firm Bain Capital. Santorum said, “Business experience doesn’t necessarily match up” with the skills needed to be president. Romney replied that career politicians such as Santorum “don’t understand what happens out in the real economy.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pointed to a recent New York Times stories on Romney’s record at Bain and said in the case of one firm that the investment firm financed and re-structured, 1,700 people were left jobless.
Romney replied that “it always pains you” when companies must be down-sized, but he argued that working in a free-market system sometimes leads to job creation and sometimes falls short. He claimed that a net total of more than 100,000 new jobs had been created by companies that Bain had financed.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry got some attention during the debate by saying "I would send troops back into Iraq" in order to prevent Iran from gaining a dominant influence in that country. It was the first time during Perry’s presidential race that he has called for U.S. troops to return to Iraq, from which they were withdrawn at the end of last month.
Gingrich got probably the biggest round of applause from the audience in New Hampshire when he denounced “media bias” and “anti-Christian bigotry” after the moderators asked a prolonged series of questions on whether gay couples should be allowed to marry.
Much of the early part of the debate was consumed by Rep. Ron Paul and Santorum trading charges with each other as Paul accused Santorum of repeatedly voting to increase the national debt and Santorum replying that he'd helped end an entitlement program, welfare, and had led the fight for a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget.
Benefiting from the Santorum-Paul squabble was Romney who could simply stand back and watch.
Romney repeatedly turned his sights on President Obama instead of on his rivals for the GOP nomination. Obama, he said, was trying to create "a European-style welfare state." He said later in the debate that Obama "has put America on the road to decline.... We're increasingly becoming like Europe."
Earlier in the debate, Paul launched into a lengthy wrangle with Gingrich over his not serving in uniform during the Vietnam War.
Gingrich said that he’d been granted a deferment from the draft due to having children, and he said his father had served for 27 years in the Army, including service in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
Paul, an Air Force veteran, said in response: “When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids -- and I went.”
Paul said men such as Gingrich who had been granted deferments from military service “have no right to send our kids off to war.” When he sees injured and disabled veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan, Paul said, “my heart weeps for them.”
Romney appears to be in a comfortable position, with the latest NBC News/Marist poll in New Hampshire on Friday showing him with a 20 percentage point lead over his nearest rival in New Hampshire, Paul who finished third in the Iowa caucuses.
The poll is one of several in recent days showing a similar lead for Romney.
Also tkaing part in the debate, and sparring briefly with Romney on trade policy, was former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who chose to bypass Iowa and has focused almost all of his time on campaigning in the Granite State. But his investment so far doesn't appear to have paid healthy dividends: the NBC News/ Marist survey showed Huntsman with only 9 percent support in New Hampshire.
Saturday night's debate will be followed up by the NBC News/Facebook debate on Meet the Press Sunday morning.
Four years ago. Sen. John McCain of Arizona scored a big win over Romney in the New Hampshire primary, a victory that helped set the stage for McCain’s triumphs in South Carolina and Florida, which essentially clinched the nomination for him.
Romney stands a chance to secure the Republican nomination if he, like McCain, can win New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. His opponents are hobbled by the division in conservative ranks among supporters of Santorum, Paul, Gingrich, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Gingrich had a disappointing fourth place finish in Iowa, followed by Perry.