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Romney's Unscathed After Back-To-Back N.H. Debates

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep in Manchester, New Hampshire. Drivers rolled past a vivid site on the road leading into one of last weekend's presidential debates. Ron Paul's campaign had put up yard signs. Not just a few; a whole row of them. Nearby stood a cluster of Jon Huntsman signs and more for Newt Gingrich. Beyond that, Mitt Romney's campaign planted what seemed like a hundred blue and white signs in a row. And then, just when the blast of color seemed over, came one more sign for Rick Santorum.

Romney's leading here. But over the weekend his rivals attacked him from all sides. And let's start our coverage with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Give a hoot for Newt.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Jon Huntsman.

Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Outside St. Anselm's College in Manchester Saturday night, there were dueling clumps of screaming, sign-waving supporters. Inside the debate hall, Mitt Romney was bracing for an all-out assault from his rivals. But it never happened, as his opponents chose to fight mostly among themselves. Here's an exchange between Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, who are competing to be the conservative alternative to Romney.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

LIASSON: By Sunday morning, the strategy had shifted, as if the candidates finally realized that they only had one day left to try and stop Romney, who appears poised to roll from one early state victory to another.

Newt Gingrich pounced after Romney gave this explanation for why he decided not to run for re-election as governor of Massachusetts.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

LIASSON: As Romney went on and on, Newt saw an opening.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

LIASSON: The personal animosity between the two men was palpable. Gingrich has been seething ever since a super-PAC supporting Romney aired $3.5 million of attack ads against him in Iowa. When the moderator invited Gingrich to restate to Romney's face his charge that Romney was a liar, Gingrich looked straight at his opponent.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

LIASSON: Romney was as usual prepared, and he had a ready answer, repeating all the charges made about Gingrich in the super-PAC ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

LIASSON: Although the other candidates managed to remind voters about all the things they may not like about Mitt Romney, none of the attacks rattled him or made him loose his cool.

Rick Perry, who entered the race in first place and then stumbled out of the gate, found a graceful way to poke fun at the moment his campaign ran aground: his famous brain freeze at a debate in Michigan when he couldn't remember the three federal agencies he wanted to eliminate.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: Perry, who's never been able to climb back out of single digits since that oops moment, left New Hampshire right after the debate to make a last stand in South Carolina. The rest of the candidates are spending one last day here hunting for votes.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Manchester, New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.