Mitt Romney's rivals attacked the Republican presidential front-runner from the opening moments of a campaign debate Saturday night, dismissing him as a mere business manager rather than a leader and a man whose investment company actually cost workers jobs.
Romney retorted that Bain Capital had created 100,000 jobs on balance, and that a businessman's experience was far better to fix the economy than a lifetime spent in Washington D.C.
"I'm very proud of the fact that the two enterprises I led were successful," he said, referring to Bain and another firm.
The debate was the first of two over the weekend in the run-up to the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. Romney won the Iowa caucuses earlier in the week by a scant eight votes over former Sen. Rick Santorum and is far ahead in the polls in New Hampshire, making his rivals eager to slow his rise in the race for the nomination.
Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry were competing to emerge as the conservative alternative to Romney. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who served as Obama's ambassador to China, and libertarian-leaning Texas Rep. Ron Paul were also taking part in the debates.
Santorum was the first to go after Romney, dismissing him as a manager. "Being a president is not a CEO. You've got to lead and inspire," he said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich followed a few moments later, referring to published accounts in the media that described how some workers were laid off after Bain invested in their companies and sought to turn them around.
He said Romney should be judged on the basis of whether "on balance, were people better off or worse off by this style of management."
The 90-minute encounter crackled with urgency.
Texas Rep. Paul said Santorum was a "big government person" even though he campaigns as a conservative, referring to votes the former Pennsylvania senator cast to raise the debt limit.
Santorum answered that he had played a key role more than 15 years ago in legislation that overhauled the nation's welfare laws.
Paul, who has referred to Gingrich as a "chicken hawk" during the campaign because he speaks for strong defense but didn't serve in the military, was asked if he stood by the statement. "Well he didn't serve," Paul replied.
Gingrich said he never sought a deferment and grew up in a military family. "Dr. Paul makes a lot of comments," he said. "It's part of his style."
Paul got the last word, saying emphatically, "When I was drafted I was married and had two kids, and I went." He was an Air Force surgeon in the Vietnam War era.