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Texas Candidates Struggle for Airtime in Debate

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.

ABC, Yahoo! News and WMUR-TV host a Republican primary debate at Saint Anselm's College in Manchester, NH.

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.”

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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.

Liveblog

by Thanh Tan
Good everyone, everyone. The debate begins at 8pm in Texas. If you'd like to watch, tune in to your local ABC affiliate. Tonight, there will be six participants on stage: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Congressman Ron Paul. Before the event began, St. Anselm College's president told the audience, "We in New Hampshire take seriously" their status as the first primary voters in the country.
by Thanh Tan
Ten minutes into the debate, and we haven't heard from the Texans. Opening salvos of the debate mostly focused between Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum.
by Thanh Tan
Congressman Paul questioned about his ad in SC against Santorum. The accusation is he's corrupt and has a record of betrayal. Paul affirms the ad. Bell went off and Santorum made off-hand remark. Paul says, "He is a "big government person" and points out he became a high-powered lobbyist after losing last congressional election. Santorum says "it's a ridiculous charge and you should know better... I'm a conservative. I'm not a libertarian. I believe in some government."
by Thanh Tan
In response to Paul's criticism about money he has received post-Congress, Santorum says he's a "cause guy" and when he left the Senate, he got into causes he believes in. He says being on a board of directors is different from being a lobbyist. Paul responds by saying, "You're a big spender." Calls him a big-government politician who doesn't support right-to-work laws (which are a big issue in South Carolina).
by Thanh Tan
For the first time, we hear from Perry. "I'm the only outsider with the possible exception of Jon Huntsman." He says Americans want someone who has executive governing experience. As governor in TX, he says he "created a million net new jobs." Perry says Ron Paul is a hypocrite for being against earmarks while still accepting them.
by Thanh Tan
Perry also said he's the candidate who can gain support of the Tea Party.
by Reeve Hamilton
Rick Perry gets a softball on how his military service affects his perspective with regard to the armed forces. He handles it smoothly. "I think it brings a very clear knowledge about what it requires for those on the front lines," he says.

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."
by Reeve Hamilton
Paul goes after Gingrich, who responds by saying that Paul has "a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false."

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.
by Thanh Tan
Moderator Stephanopoulos asked Romney whether states should ban contraception. Awkward exchange ensued between several candidates. Basically, no one supports banning birth control. An exasperated Romney delivered what may go down as one of the more memorable lines of the debate: "Contraception? It's working just fine. Leave it alone."
by Thanh Tan
Asked about running on a third party ticket, Paul once again says he doesn't like to speak in "absolutes." He has no plans or intention to do so, but he reserves the right to consider it after this primary. He wants to see change.

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.
by Reeve Hamilton
Perry says he would send troops back into Iraq. He says the only reason they were pulled out in the first place was "because this President wants to kowtow to his liberal, leftist base."

Perry warns that Iranians will now be swooping in to take control "literally at the speed of light."
by Thanh Tan
Perry just argued Obama erred in getting out of Iraq— and he would send troops back.

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.
by Reeve Hamilton
Foreign policy discussion turns to Paul. Moderator Josh McElveen notes that some people view the topic as Paul's achilles' heel. Paul clarifies that he does not want Iran to get a nuclear weapon.

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.
by Thanh Tan
Congressman Paul asked about a realistic vision for America. Paul's themes: restore our freedoms, sound money, liberty. He wants to liquidate the debt. Instead, he says the U.S. has bailed out the banks. Perry pipes in and says there's a vision, and it means "less taxation, less litigation." He cites Texas again. "We're sitting on 300 years of energy... allow our lands to be opened up." An emphatic Perry says passing the "right to work" law will make New Hampshire "a powerful magnet for jobs in the northeast."
by Reeve Hamilton
Candidates are asked what they'd be doing on a regular Saturday night. Perry says he'd be at the shooting range. Paul says he'd be with his family, but if they went to sleep, then he'd read an economic textbook.

And with that, the debate ends.

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