Mitt Romney has cemented his place as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for the US presidency after a debate in New Hampshire which saw his challengers squabbling among themselves.

Three days ahead of the state's important primary poll, the former governor of Massachusetts focused less on his fellow Republicans and more on criticising the policies of Barack Obama, the president.

"His policies have made the recession deeper and his policies have made the recovery more tepid," Romney said during the debate in Manchester on Saturday, despite a declining unemployment rate and the creation of 200,000 jobs last month.

Former Senator Rick Santorum, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Utah Governor Jon Hunstman were all competing to emerge as the main conservative alternative to Romney, who has consistently polled well with Republican voters.

Romney won a slim eight-vote victory in the Iowa caucuses last Tuesday, but has repeatedly registered as a strong favourite in pre-primary polls in New Hampshire.

The exchanges, which took place at the gymnasium on the campus of St Anselm College, were the first of two back-to-back debates that represent the last chance to sway large numbers of voters before the state votes on Tuesday.

Barbs exchanged

Paul assailed Santorum as a "big government person", an allegation the former Pennsylvania senator disputed. Santorum finished second to Romney in the Iowa poll, with Paul coming in third.

Gingrich and Paul exchanged barbs, meanwhile, over the issue of military service, with the Texas politician criticising Gingrich for not having served.

Gingrich was fourth in Iowa and Perry fifth. Huntsman did not compete there.

Romney has often touted his business background in his campaign, and his opponents attacked him on it during the debate.


Obama has focused on making the presidential race more about foreign policy than the ailing US economy

Santorum went first, dismissing him as a mere manager.

"Being a president is not a CEO. You've got to lead and inspire," he said.

Gingrich followed suit a few moments later, criticising the work done by Romney's company, which bought troubled companies and restructured them.

He said Romney should be judged on the basis of whether "on balance, people [were] better off or worse off by this style of management".

Romney retorted by saying that his company had created 100,000 jobs, and that his experience was better suited to helping manage the ailing US economy than that of someone who has spent most of their career in Washington politics.

The Republican frontrunner also criticised Obama for increasing spending on government welfare programmes, saying he was attempting to turn the US into a "European-style welfare state".

Perry, who was close to quitting the race after Iowa, said that all of his rivals were similar to one another, and attempted to place himself as the "only outsider" in the race.

Hunstman dismissed much of the back-and-forth criticism amongst candidates as "insider gobbledygook ... a lot of political spin", saying that he would focus on policy questions regarding more important issues, such as national security.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies