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Romney brushes off rivals' barbs in debate.

 Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman answers a questions as Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, listens, right, during a Republican presidential candidate debate at Sai...
 Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, left, listens to Texas Gov. Rick Perry answer a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at Sai...
 Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney answers a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H...
 Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, answers a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Saturday, J...
 Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich answers a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., ...

Republican Debate

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman answers a questions as Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, listens, right, during a Republican presidential candidate debate at Sai...

Republican Debate

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, left, listens to Texas Gov. Rick Perry answer a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at Sai...

Republican Debate

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney answers a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H...

Republican Debate

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, answers a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Saturday, J...

Republican Debate

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich answers a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., ...

Mitt Romney brushed aside rivals' criticism Saturday night in the first of two weekend debates that left his Republican presidential campaign challengers squabbling among themselves and unable to knock the front-runner off stride.
Three days before the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, the former Massachusetts governor largely ignored his fellow Republicans and turned instead on President Barack Obama.
"His policies have made the recession deeper and his policies have made the recovery more tepid," he said, despite a declining unemployment rate and the creation of 200,000 jobs last month.
Former Sen. Rick 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.
Romney won an eight-vote victory in the Iowa caucuses last Tuesday and is far ahead in the pre-primary polls in New Hampshire. That leaves his pursuers little time to stop his rise, and, all but conceding New Hampshire to the former governor of next-door Massachusetts, they're mostly focusing their efforts on the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21
Ron Paul assailed Santorum as a "big government person," an allegation the former Pennsylvania senator disputed. Santorum finished a close second to Romney in Iowa this week, with Paul coming in third.
Paul, who has criticized former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for not serving in the military, drew withering criticism in return. "I personally resent the kinds of comments and aspersions he routinely makes," Gingrich said.
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.
Gingrich was fourth in Iowa and Perry fifth. Huntsman did not compete there, hoping to make a splash in New Hampshire.
Romney, who often touts his business background, was attacked in the opening moments of the debate. 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 a few moments later, referring to published accounts that described how some workers were laid off after Bain Capital, the firm Romney once led, 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."
Unruffled, the former Massachusetts governor retorted that Bain had created 100,000 jobs on balance, and that a businessman's experience was far better to fix the economy that a lifetime spent in Washington, D.C.
More than an hour later, Romney turned one question about his vision for the country into an attack on Obama that is part of his standard campaign speech. While his rivals stood by silently, he accused the president of trying to turn the United States into a "European-style welfare state."
Perry, who flirted with quitting the race after Iowa, emphasized that he was an outsider in the race as he sought to lump his rivals into one, unappealing category.
"I think you've just seen a great example of why I got in the race. ... I'm the only outsider," he said as he watched Santorum, Paul, Gingrich and Romney clash.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman dismissed much of the back-and-forth as "insider gobbledygook ... a lot of political spin," saying he would focus on more important questions such as national security.
The intramural skirmishes reflected the state of the race _ Romney the acknowledged front-runner under attack from his rivals, who face an increasingly urgent need to emerge as his main conservative challenger.
The candidates faced a quick turnaround for the second debate, set for Sunday morning in Concord.