|Ahead of the New Hampshire primary, GOP hopefuls took to the debating stage [GALLO/ GETTY]
Manchester, New Hampshire - As the New Hampshire primary approaches, Republican presidential hopefuls debated with each other in one of their last chances to woo Granite State voters.
Only six candidates were on the stage at St Anselm College, in the first of two debates separated by a mere 12 hours: former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Texas congressman Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, Texas governor Rick Perry and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr.
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The stage felt a little smaller with the departure of outspoken Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann from the race, following her disappointing show in the Iowa caucuses.
None of the candidates made any major mis-steps. And the audience appeared to behave itself too: Unlike at previous debates, the audience didn't, for instance, boo gay soldiers or cheer capital punishment in Texas.
The real story out of Saturday's debate was that - despite Mitt Romney's big lead in New Hampshire, and his strong position in South Carolina, the next state to vote - his opponents failed to attack him effectively, often taking shots at one another instead.
Rick Santorum and Ron Paul - the second- and third-place finishers in the Iowa caucuses, respectively - were particularly critical of one another.
Paul, who describes himself as a non-interventionist, said the US should work to win the hearts and minds of Iranians. He cited the recent US rescue of Iranian fishermen from pirates in the Arabian Sea as a positive development, and warned against imposing sanctions on Iran. Doing the latter, he said, "just pushes Iran right into the hands of the Chinese". Santorum sniped back: "If we had your foreign policy, we wouldn't have had a fleet there to pick up the Iranian fishermen."
And when Paul's microphone screeched with feedback in the midst of accusing Santorum of being "corrupt" for taking lobbyist money, Santorum zinged: "It caught you lying".
"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."
- Ron Paul commenting on Newt Gingrich
Paul and Gingrich also sparred. When asked by the moderators whether he'd repeat his accusation that Newt Gingrich was a "chickenhawk" for not serving in the military during the Vietnam War, Paul said "yes. 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".
For his part, Gingrich said he never asked for a deferment during the Vietnam War, and accused Paul of having "a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false".
Meanwhile, Romney often directed criticism towards Obama, not his opponents. When asked whether recently released employment figures are signs of economic recovery, Romney said it's "very good news" - but "not thanks to Obama".
Romney did get testy with moderator George Stephanopoulos when he asked whether Romney thought states should have the right to ban contraception (Santorum has expressed support of states' rights to do so). Romney replied that it's "kind of a silly" question, given that no state plans on implementing such a ban. When pressed repeatedly by Stephanopoulos, Romney’s retort drew the biggest laughter of the night: "Contraception's working just fine. Just leave it alone!"
Rick Perry - who's known for being gaffe-prone during debates - performed passably. But in an eyebrow-raiser, he said that he would send US troops back into Iraq to prevent Iranians from "moving back in literally at the speed of light". Otherwise, Perry warned, "every young man that has lost his life in that country will have been for nothing".
The jabs against Romney were glancing. Huntsman gave Romney a hard time about his China policy, saying that Romney "doesn't quite understand this situation" in Mandarin. Gingrich positioned himself as a "bold Reagan conservative" as compared with what he says is Romney's more "establishment" conservatism. And Santorum criticised Romney for using the term "middle class". "There are no classes in America," argued Santorum. Romney, however, didn't flinch.
The audience tended to think Romney had won. Michelle Gearrity, who had driven up from Long Island to attend the debate, said she supported Santorum, but thought Romney performed best in the debate. Santorum "should've stepped up a little more", Gearrity thought, and Perry should have too. "This is his last shot."
Lorin Rydstrom of Hollis, New Hampshire, said Romney won by "avoiding making any major mistakes".
Republicans weren't the only ones at the debate. About 100 people affiliated with the Occupy movement, calling themselves "Occupy the New Hampshire Primary", were also at St Anselm's.
An Occupy organiser, Wendy Rogers, said they were holding "a funeral for the American dream". A group of Occupiers played wind and brass instruments euphoniously; their repertoire included Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" and labour anthem "Which Side Are You On?" Between songs they chanted, "We are the 99 per cent" and, "We are unstoppable / Another world is possible".
One Occupier said he planned on voting for Obama in November; another was interested in former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, a Republican who supports the Occupy movement.
A group of about 25 anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews were also at the debate, saying they were there to tell the candidates that opposing Israeli policy was not anti-Semitic. Chief Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, who says the existence of a Jewish state violates the Torah, said he wanted "to educate the candidates that they should stand up for the freeing of Palestine".
Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier
Source: Al Jazeera