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By Michael Carl

The contenders for the Republican nomination squared off this evening in Manchester, N.H., for the ABC News/WMUR debate with expectations Romney, the current frontrunner according to most polls, would be heavily targeted by the other contenders on the stage: Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum.

It was fireworks from the start, with Pennsylvania’s Santorum taking aim at Romney being a “CEO” and Gingrich specifically questioning Romney’s “Wall Street model” of entrepreneurship.

“Well, we need a leader, someone who can paint a positive vision for this country, someone who has the experience to go out and be the commander-in-chief,” Santorum said.

“I have experience for eight years on the Armed Services Committee, I managed major pieces of legislation through the House and through the Senate on national security issues, like Iran, which is the most … you want to talk about the most pressing issue that we’re dealing with today? It’s Iran,” Santorum said.

“The commander-in-chief of this country isn’t a CEO. It’s someone who has to lead … being the president is not a CEO. You can’t direct members of Congress and members of the Senate as to how you do things. You’ve got to lead and inspire,” Santorum also said.

Romney countered by saying that those who have spent their lives in Washington aren’t in touch with reality.

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

“People who start – as entrepreneurs that start a business from the ground up – and get customers and get investors and hire people to join them, those people are leaders,” Romney said. “My experience is in leadership.”

Gingrich responded by attacking Romney’s record at Bain Capital, saying he had destroyed companies to make a profit.

“I’m very much for free enterprise. I’m very much for exactly what the governor just described, create a business, grow jobs, provide leadership. I’m not nearly as enamored of a Wall Street model where you can flip companies, you can go in and have leveraged buyouts, you can basically take out all the money, leaving behind the workers,” Gingrich said.

“You have to ask yourself some questions. The governor has every right to defend that. I think it’s a legitimate part of the debate to say, OK, on balance, were people better off or were people worse off by this particular style of investment,” Gingrich said.

“The New York Times story on Bain Capital took one specific company. They walked through in detail. They showed what they bought it for, how much they took out of it and the 1,700 people they left unemployed,” Gingrich said.

The sharpest exchange of the evening was over states’ rights and the issue of birth control and homosexual marriage.

Co-moderator George Stephanopolis questioned Romney and Perry as to whether they believed there was a constitutional right to privacy and whether states had the right to forbid the use of contraceptives. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against states in Griswold vs Connecticut in the 1960s and that precedent formed the basis for the Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe Vs. Wade that the right to privacy included a right to abortion.

A flustered Romney dismissed the question saying there were no states wanting to outlaw birth control. Perry said he agreed there was a right to privacy but it did not include the right to kill other humans. Ron Paul, who as a physician has delivered thousands of babies and is pro-life, steered the exchange away from the Court’s rulings and identified a right to privacy in the Fourth Amendment.

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman drew laughter when he said, I’m a married man. I’ve been married for 28 years. I have seven kids. Glad we’re off the contraception discussion. Fifteen minutes’ worth, by the way.”

The moderators then turned to the issue of same-sex marriage.

On the subject, Huntsman offered:

“Well, personally, I think civil unions are fair. I support them. I think there’s such a thing as equality under the law. … And I don’t feel that my relationship is at all threatened by civil unions. On marriage, I’m a traditionalist. I think that ought to be saved for one man and one woman, but I believe that civil unions are fair. And I think it brings a level of dignity to relationships. And I believe in reciprocal beneficiary rights. I think they should be part of civil unions, as well. And states ought to be able to talk about this. I think it’s absolutely appropriate,” Huntsman said.

Santorum countered by saying marriage is a federal issue, but homosexual adoption is not.

“Well, this isn’t a federal issue. It’s a state issue, number one. The states can make that determination … .  My feeling is that the issue of marriage itself is a federal issue, that we can’t have different laws with respect to marriage. We have to have one law,” Santorum said.

Citing a statement made by Gingrich, Santorum said, “Marriage is a foundation institution of our country, and we have to have a singular law with respect to that. We can’t have somebody married in one state and not married in another. If we were successful in establishing that, then this issue becomes moot,” Santorum said.

“If we don’t have a federal law, I’m certainly not going to have a federal law that bans adoption for gay couples when there are only gay couples in certain states. So this is a state issue, not a federal issue,” Santorum said.

Gingrich, as he has effectively done in previous debates, made the establishment press the issue, taking the moderators to task for attempting to put the candidates on the spot on the issue of same-sex marriage when they were not asking why the Catholic Church was being discriminated against in being denied its historic role of handling adoptions because they refuse to provide services to homosexual couples. The audience gave its largest applause to Gingrich’s comment that bigotry against Christians was far greater than that going the other way.

Romney weighed in on the issue by talking about Massachusetts’ record in dealing with the issue of same-sex marriage during his tenure as governor.

Calling it “a wonderful thing to do” for same-sex couples to “form long-term committed relationships with one another,” Romney said it “doesn’t mean that they have to call it marriage or they have to receive the approval of the state and a marriage license and so forth for that to occur.”

“There can be domestic partnership benefits or a contractual relationship between two people, which would include, as Speaker Gingrich indicated, hospital visitation rights and the like. We can decide what kinds of benefits we might associate with people who form those kind of relationships, state by state,” Romney said.

“But, but to say that marriage is something other than the relationship between a man and a woman, I think, is a mistake. And the reason for that is not that we want to discriminate against people or to suggest that gay couples are not just as loving and can’t also raise children well. But it’s instead a recognition that, for society as a whole, that the nation presumably will – would be better off if children are raised in a setting where there’s a male and a female,” Romney said.

WND has previously reported Romney’s words defining marriage and his actions as governor contradict one another, documenting that not only did Romney promote homosexual marriage, his administration promoted transgender rights and distributed a poster advocating transgender health care.

“The poster from the Romney Department of Public Health was pushed statewide – in doctors’ offices, school nurses’ offices and public transportation. The poster claimed ‘Transphobia in healthcare is unhealthy,’” the WND report said.

Polls say Romney still holds a lead. A Suffolk University poll released Saturday indicates Romney has lost ground, slipping to 39% from 43% on Wednesday.

The same poll suggests Santorum’s post-Iowa “bump” has subsided. Santorum is currently tied with Jon Huntsman at 9%.

“Rick Santorum’s streak of four straight improving poll days has ended. He is still in a close battle for the bronze medal with Gingrich and Huntsman with two debates scheduled in the next 24 hours,” Suffolk political research director David Paleologos said.

A Rasmussen national poll shows Santorum with 21 percent – within 8 points of frontrunner Mitt Romney. Gallup has Santorum rising to 15 percent nationally and 12 points behind Romney.

In New Hampshire, Romney still leads the pack with 42 percent of likely voters, having dropped two points only a day after receiving the endorsement of Sen. John McCain.

Gingrich continues his slide in New Hampshire but is holding at 16 percent in Rasmussen’s national survey.

A new South Carolina poll shows Santorum within three points of Romney. Romney is at 27, Santorum at 24 and Gingrich at 18.

However, the Santorum story in Iowa isn’t over.

WND reported that an inaccurate precinct count overstated Mitt Romney’s vote total by 20 votes. Iowa Republican Party officials says an adjusted vote total would give Santorum a narrow 12-vote victory.

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