NASHUA, N.H. — Republican presidential candidates face off for their first debate in three weeks on Saturday night, a high-stakes showdown as Mitt Romney hints that he's poised to run away with the nomination and Rick Santorum grabs the spotlight for the first time in the battle to be the main anti-Romney.
Santorum will be at center stage when the debate begins at 9 p.m. EST, the first joint appearance with his rivals since he surged from obscurity to come within 8 votes of winning the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday. In 13 previous debates, he has always been the one farthest to the side, often off screen.
While Romney maintains a big lead in New Hampshire polls, Santorum has jumped into third place in the state and is gaining on second-place contender Ron Paul. Polls also show Santorum surging into a close second behind Romney in South Carolina, which votes on Jan. 21, and nationally.
With his rapid rise, the former senator from Pennsylvania is starting to draw barbs from rivals and scrutiny from the news media — with questions about his record on pork-barrel "earmark" spending, his work as a Washington consultant after losing his seat in 2006, and his stand on gay marriage likely to come up at the debate.
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"Rick's strong conservative values, and his courage to fight for them, put a big target on his back," campaign manager Mike Biundo said in an email to supporters. "You can be sure the liberal press, and even some of the establishment from our party, will be firing away at him."
Santorum drew big crowds Friday. In Keene, the fire marshal stopped people from crowding into a library meeting room to hear him.
Romney, confident of winning New Hampshire, looked ahead to the next contest with a quick trip to South Carolina with ally John McCain, who predicted that a Romney win there essentially would wrap up the Republican nomination — and the election.
"If Mitt Romney wins here, he will be the next president of the United States," McCain said outside Myrtle Beach.
Indeed, a Romney win in each of the first three states would be unprecedented and likely would signal a march to the nomination at least. But he's far from a lock to win South Carolina.
Santorum and others waged a spirited battle Friday for second place in New Hampshire, one each hoped would give him a boost heading to more conservative South Carolina.
Romney continued to hold an overwhelming lead in New Hampshire on Friday, with Paul a distant second and Santorum in third and gaining. A new Suffolk University/7 News poll showed Romney with the support of 40 percent of likely primary voters, Paul with 17 percent and Santorum with 11 percent, the first time he's registered double-digit support in the state. He had just 3 percent before his string finish in Iowa.
"Rick Santorum is the only Republican candidate moving up in New Hampshire," said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. "He has cleared the Gingrich and Huntsman hurdles for third place and is only 6 points away from second place. Watch out Ron Paul."
Paul didn't appear at all concerned as he was met by more than 400 cheering supporters in a Nashua airport hangar who welcomed him back to the campaign after a post-Iowa break.
"Momentum is picking up," the Texas congressman said, with his son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, at his side.
While rivals lambaste his isolationist foreign policy views as dangerous, the Texas congressman did not shy from the fight. "We're going to do very well on Tuesday," Paul said. "They call us dangerous. In a way — to their empire. ... People who truly want change .... are joining our campaign."
Gingrich focused most of his fire on Romney, using a TV interview to rip the former Massachusetts governor as a weak challenger to President Barack Obama.
"Obama's going to laugh at him," Gingrich said on ABC Friday. "Obama's going to say, 'I developed Obamacare based on Romneycare. I even brought your staff into the White House in order to develop it.'"
He predicted that conservatives eventually will rally behind one of the candidates as an alternative to Romney, perhaps in South Carolina.
"We'll gradually coalesce. One of us will emerge as the conservative alternative," he said. "That conservative alternative will beat Romney."
On the trail Friday, the former House speaker was dogged by questions about his relationship with mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
He said he's "perfectly happy" to release his contracts with the mortgage broker, which paid him a consulting fee of $1.6 million. But he said that decision must first be vetted by attorneys for the Center for Health Transformation, which he founded. "I don't have any control over that."
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