Republican candidates stand by negative ads, fail to knock out Romney

·Political Reporter

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. -- With the pressure on just three days before the first primary contest in the nation, the Republican presidential candidates had their arsenals ready for tonight's debate--but left front runner Mitt Romney largely untouched.

Romney is polling at around 40 percent in the state, several points in front of the closest runner-up. Tonight, his competitors failed to effectively take him on in a way that could chip away at his lead in the state. If Saturday night's performance is any indicator, he will head into next week's primaries still looking strong.

The candidates have ramped up attacks on each other, both in campaign stump speeches and in ads running in early primary states over the past few weeks. On Saturday, each candidate was asked to stand by their accusations and repeat them, face-to-face.

On the trail, former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum has said that executive experience in the private sector is not enough to qualify a candidate for the presidency. Elaborating on that accusation, Santorum found himself at the center of attention for the first time at this debate.

"Of course I was talking about Governor Romney," Santorum said. "Well, business experience doesn't necessarily match up with being the commander-in-chief of this country. The commander-in-chief of this country isn't a CEO."

Romney defended himself, charging that his opponent was a lifetime politician who lacked the understanding of the economy.

"I think people who spend their life in Washington don't understand what happens out in the real economy," Romney said. "They think that people who start businesses are just managers."

Perhaps the most aggressive offensive of the night came from Texas Rep. Ron Paul as he aimed at former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who he recently accused of being a "chickenhawk" for not serving in the Vietnam War. Gingrich, whose step-father spent his career in the army, took personal offense to the comment.

You can watch video of the exchange below:

"Dr. Paul has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false," Gingrich said. "The fact is, I never asked for deferment. I was married with a child. It was never a question. My father was, in fact, serving in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta at the time he's referring to. I think I have a pretty good idea of what it's like as a family to worry about your father getting killed. And I personally resent the kind of comments and aspersions he routinely makes without accurate information and then just slurs people with."

But Paul fired back, saying he too had children during the war, "and I went."

The debate, however, took a turn when ABC News moderators George Stephanopoulos and Diane Sawyer brought up social issues: gay marriage and federal control over contraception.

You can watch video of Romney discussing contraception below:

When the candidates were asked to defend their opposition to gay marriage, they deliberately charged that the topic had only been made an issue by what Gingrich called "bias" media.

You can watch video of Gingrich below:

The candidates are set to debate again Sunday morning at a forum hosted by NBC News. Don't be surprised to see them turn up the heat on Romney.

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