Republicans fail to trip up Romney
Mitt Romney brushed aside his rivals' criticism 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, Mr Romney largely ignored his fellow Republicans and turned instead on US 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.
Rivals Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry are competing to emerge as the conservative alternative to Mr Romney. Jon Huntsman, who served as Mr Obama's ambassador to China, and libertarian-leaning Ron Paul are also taking part in the debates.
Mr 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 are already mostly focusing their efforts on the South Carolina primary on January 21
Mr Romney, who often touts his business background, was attacked in the opening moments of Saturday night's debate. Mr 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.
Mr Gingrich followed a few moments later, referring to published accounts that described how some workers were laid off after Bain Capital, the firm Mr Romney once led, invested in their companies and sought to turn them around. He said Mr Romney should be judged on the basis of whether "on balance, were people better off or worse off by this style of management".
Unruffled, Mr Romney 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.
More than an hour later, Mr Romney turned one question about his vision for the country into an attack on Mr 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".
Frequent skirmishes reflected the state of the race - Mr Romney the acknowledged front-runner under attack from his rivals, who face an increasingly urgent need to emerge as his main conservative challenger.