Republican candidates gear up for high-stakes debate
Republican candidates hoping to be on their party's ticket for the 2012 US presidential election are set to hold a key debate Saturday at St. Anselm college in New Hampshire, their first showdown since Mitt Romney took the Iowa caucus last week.
AFP - Frontrunner Mitt Romney and his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination face off Saturday in a high-stakes debate where sparks are set to fly ahead of New Hampshire's primary.
The showdown, held by tradition on the campus of tiny Saint Anselm college here, comes as a fresh batch of opinion polls show Romney with a vast lead over the crowded field here but Christian conservative Rick Santorum surging.
According to an NBC-Marist survey, Romney was ahead with 42-percent support, followed by Texas Representative Ron Paul with 22 percent and Santorum with 13 percent.
The debate -- the first since Romney edged Santorum by just eight votes out of 120,000 cast in Iowa's caucus -- will give the candidates a prime-time shot at denting Romney before New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday.
"I'm ready for what anyone wants to bring my way. Got to have broad shoulders in this business. As was said long, long ago, politics ain't beanbags," Romney said in an interview with Bloomberg TV.
Santorum, a former senator from the key battleground of Pennsylvania, has mostly avoided attacking the former Massachusetts governor by name but mocked his shifting views on issues that put him at odds with conservatives.
"I can tell you, you may not agree with me on every issue and I suspect you don't. But what you know is that I agree with me on every issue," Santorum said at a town hall meeting this week in Brentwood.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who blamed his disappointing fourth-place Iowa finish on attack ads by Romney and his allies, has been attacking Romney as they both criss-cross the small northeastern state.
"It's a joke for him to call himself a conservative," said Gingrich who is running fourth behind Romney, Paul and Santorum but ahead of former US China envoy Jon Huntsman and Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Perry, who skipped New Hampshire after a woeful fifth place in Iowa to campaign on friendlier ground in South Carolina, will need to convince voters he deserves a second look after shaky performances in prior debates.
The debate, and another on Sunday morning, are going to be "highly negative," said Larry J. Sabato, a politics professor at the University of Virginia and the author of "Feeding Frenzy: Attack Journalism and American Politics."
"It's 10 minutes to midnight. If Romney runs away with the voting, there may be no stopping him," Sabato recently told AFP.
The debates are a rare chance to court a national audience and voters statewide in New Hampshire, which could send another candidate packing the same way a sixth-place finish led Representative Michele Bachmann to give up.
That could reset the field: Romney's vast campaign war chest and high-profile endorsements have fed an image as the candidate to beat, but he faces stubborn doubts about his conservative credentials and has never been able to push his support from Republicans nationwide above 30 percent.
If core conservatives rally around Santorum -- or another candidate -- Romney could be in for a battle, though none of those currently running can yet match his fundraising haul or his extensive organization across key states.
Romney predicted Friday that he and his rivals would ultimately close ranks around the eventual nominee in order to ensure that President Barack Obama is turned out of the White House in November 6 elections.
"We'll put our egos and bruised feelings aside and then come back and do what's the right thing for our nation," Romney told about 100 supporters at a spaghetti dinner in Tilton, New Hampshire.
"When it's all over, we ought to be able to hug and go to work to get one of us elected president of the United States," he said. "If I am not the nominee, I will be supporting our nominee, and working for him. I will work hard."