GOP candidates thwack at Romney, each other, in N.H.

First of weekend’s two debates is a scrap for second place

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MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mitt Romney coolly defended his solid New Hampshire lead Saturday night in a high-stakes debate as his rivals took aim at each other in their struggle to emerge as Romney’s main challenger.

The six candidates fought, sometimes bitterly, over leadership qualities, job creation, military backgrounds, and a host of other issues three days before the nation’s first presidential primary.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has a huge lead in New Hampshire polls, defended his role as a businessman and emerged from the debate largely unscathed. His opponents largely fired at each other, not him, and he concentrated his criticism on Barack Obama, cultivating his camp’s contention that he’s the Republican most able to defeat the Democratic incumbent.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who surged into a virtual tie with Romney in Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses, promoted his record of working in Congress as a better model for presidential leadership than Romney’s record as a private-equity capitalist.

“Business experience doesn’t necessarily match up with being the commander-in-chief,” Santorum said, referring to Romney. “The commander-in-chief of this country isn’t a CEO.”

Romney, co-founder of the Bain Capital investment company, responded firmly and deliberately. “People who start businesses … are leaders. My experience is in leadership.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also went after Romney’s record at Bain, a company that invested in other businesses, sometimes forcing job layoffs.

“I’m not nearly as enamored of a Wall Street model where you can flip companies, you can go in and have leveraged buyouts, you can basically take out all the money, leaving behind the worker,” Gingrich said.

“It always pained me” to downsize a business to make it financially successful, Romney said.

The two-hour debate was the first of a two-debate weekend showdown. The same group debates Sunday for 90 minutes on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The first hour will be televised.

The night’s most aggressive exchanges did not involve Romney. Instead, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas attacked Gingrich and Santorum.

Paul echoed his earlier charge that Gingrich was a “chicken hawk” for supporting sending young people to war after not serving himself during the Vietnam War.

Gingrich was offended, saying that he was “an Army brat” whose family experience gives him “a pretty good sense of what military families and veterans’ families need.”

Paul wouldn’t relent. “I think people who don’t serve when they could and they get three or four or even five deferments aren’t — they — they have no right to send our kids off to war, and — and not be even against the wars that we have. I’m trying to stop the wars, but at least, you know, I went when they called me up,” he said. When he was drafted, in fact, “I was married and had two kids, and I went.”

Santorum, who took center stage for the first time since he came within 8 votes of Romney in Iowa, also took fire from Paul.

“You’re a big spender, that’s all there is to it. You’re a big-government conservative,” Paul said, hitting Santorum for voting to increase the debt limit and supporting “earmarks,” the special appropriations for a single state often derided as pork-barrel spending.

“I had a responsibility as a senator from Pennsylvania to go there and represent the interests of my state,” Santorum said. “I don’t apologize for that.”

The biggest applause of the night came when Gingrich slammed gay marriage advocates for declaring that Catholic Charities cannot use federal grants to oppose gay marriage.

“The bigotry question goes both ways,” Gingrich said. And there’s a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is concerning the other side.”

Once the applause died down, Romney said, “Me, too.”