The bad news for the GOP’s presidential hopefuls from Texas? No blows landed on Mitt Romney in Saturday night’s nationally televised New Hampshire debate to knock the front-runner from his perch.
Even Gov. Rick Perry's biggest statement of the night — that he wants to return U.S. troops to Iraq — failed to get him much attention in a forum that largely focused on the leading candidates.
The Tribune liveblogged the two-hour debate at Saint Anselm's College in Manchester, N.H., moderated by ABC's Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos and WMUR-TV anchor Josh McElveen. Much had changed since the candidates last faced each other in December. Romney barely won the Iowa caucuses and holds a significant lead over his opponents in New Hampshire. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has enjoyed momentum since his near-first place finish in Iowa. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann dropped out.
The spotlight was decidedly not on the two debate participants from Texas — U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, who placed third in Iowa, and Perry, who came in fifth and appeared to be close to dropping out before deciding to set his sights on South Carolina.
More than 10 minutes went by before either got a chance to speak, after all others — Romney, Santorum, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and even former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — had a turn (some more than once).
When he got a chance to speak, Perry spoke strongly, but it’s yet to be seen if he delivered a message Republican primary voters want to hear. Most notably, he called for sending U.S. combat troops back into Iraq.
Of the removal of troops that occurred at the end of 2011, Perry said, “I think it is a huge error for us. We’re going to see Iran, in my opinion, move back in at literally the speed of light … and all of the work that we’ve done, every young man that has lost his life in that country will have been for nothing because we’ve got a president that does not understand what’s going on in that region.”
Watch the video below.
Last month, a CNN/ORC International poll found that nearly eight in 10 Americans supported bringing U.S. troops out of Iraq.
Paul, who received more screen time than Perry, seemed to be in a particularly combative mood — and the other candidates vying to share top polling numbers with Romney were happy to engage. Paul’s most heated exchange was with Gingrich, whom Paul recently criticized for not serving in the military.
Paul said he stood by the comments. “I think people who don’t serve when they could and they get three or four or even five deferments … they have no right to send our kids off to war," he said.
Gingrich shot back that Paul “has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false.” He said he never asked for a deferment and that he was married with a child at the time. Paul responded that when he was drafted, he was married and had two kids.
The accusation by Gingrich also opened the door for moderators to prod Paul on racially charged newsletters sent out under his name during a period of time when he was out of office. Paul reiterated that he did not write the newsletters. He then went on to say that the issue was diverting attention from his actual understanding of racial issues.
“I’m the only one up here ... that understands true racism in this country is in the judicial system. And it has to do with enforcing the drug laws,” he said.
After the debate, Paul’s surrogates were quick to declare that their candidate remains the most consistently conservative of all the candidates.
“We’ve been under fire from the other candidates for weeks now,” said Jesse Benton, Paul’s campaign manager. “He’s a strong man, a strong candidate. He’s ready for it — and he dished it right back.”
Paul’s son, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, also showed up in the spin room to say his father’s latest ad against Santorum isn’t personal.
“I think just the fact that he’s new to the top tier, hasn’t been screened or vetted, and this is his chance,” the junior Paul said.
Paul and Benton said the congressman is also opposed to Perry’s suggestion that troops be sent back to Iraq.
“He thinks that would just be a horrible mistake. We just can’t afford this right now. Our country is bankrupt,” Benton said. “We need to bring troops home, have a strong national defense and start rebuilding our military, rebuilding our national defense, and start taking care of our priorities here. Not getting back into nation building.”
Flanked by a notably smaller group of reporters compared to all other candidates, Perry spokesman Mark Miner said he felt Perry proved he was “the true Washington outsider” and the Iraq statement was planned.
“It’s always been about the strategic placement of troops. He was prepared for that answer. He has a unique perspective from being in the military,” Miner said, adding they are not “competing too much” in New Hampshire and focusing their efforts in South Carolina.
Both candidates will have another chance to face off again Sunday morning during the NBC Facebook debate. The Tribune’s Morgan Smith and Thanh Tan will be liveblogging the event, which streams live on NBCPolitics.com and Facebook.com, starting at 8 a.m. Central time.
Then Perry deftly steers the conversation to Obama and military budget cuts (of which Perry disapproves). He says, "What our president is doing with this military budget is going to put our country in jeopardy."
This prompts George Stephanopoulos to ask Paul about the racially charged newsletters that, decades ago, went out under his name. Paul, once again, says they were not written 20 years ago by someone other than himself and that bringing them up was diverting attention from more important issues.
Paul says a better question would dig into his relationships with people of other races. In fact, he points out, one of his heroes is Martin Luther King, Jr., because of his practice of civil disobedience. Paul also cited Rosa Parks.
He then goes on to say that he’s the only candidate who understands true racial discrimination, which is manifested in the criminal justice system’s unequal enforcement of drug laws.
Here comes Perry, who says he supports a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. He says the Obama Administration's "war on religion" will stop under a Perry Administration.
Perry warns that Iranians will now be swooping in to take control "literally at the speed of light."
Paul doesn't want Iran to get nuclear weapons, but he says America is involved in too many conflicts around the world. Sanctions don't work; they lead to war. "Our policies may be well intended," but there are a lot of "unintended consequences."
Santorum says under Paul's kind of leadership, the U.S. wouldn't have gotten involved in the effort to save Iranians from pirates.
He says a key problem is that people need to realize that the president is not a king who can start a war on a whim.
Of the country's recent conflicts, Paul says, "We would have saved ourselves a lot of grief if we had gone to war in the proper manner." That is, he explains, one in which the citizens' representatives vote on and make a formal declaration of war.