CONCORD, N.H. -- They had to be poked, prodded and nudged to do it, but the Republican presidential candidates finally went on the offense against front-runner Mitt Romney during a Sunday morning debate--if only for a few minutes.
Going down the line, NBC News moderator David Gregory gave the candidates an opportunity to explain in front of the former Massachusetts governor why they thought Romney should not be the GOP nominee.
"There's a huge difference between a Reagan conservative and somebody who comes out of a Massachusetts culture with an essentially moderate record," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been on the blunt end of Romney's media attack apparatus for weeks. "I think he'll have a very hard time getting elected."
Visibly frustrated after being slammed by Romney as a "lifetime politician," Gingrich hit back on stage, labeling Romney's claims about being a man of the private sector "pious baloney."
"You've been running consistently for years and years and years," Gingrich said. "So this idea that suddenly, citizenship showed up in your mind—just level with the American people, you've been running since the 1990s."
The debate began just 10 hours after the ABC/Yahoo! debate ended in Manchester. During that event, candidates largely failed to chip away effectively at Romney's record.
During the "Meet the Press" debate, Romney defended himself as a "solid conservative who brought important change to Massachusetts," and touted his long list of endorsements, including those from several New Hampshire officials. "I'm very proud of the conservative record I have," he said.
That's when Santorum jumped in.
"If his record was so great," he said, turning to Romney, "why didn't you run for re-election?" (Romney served one term as governor of Massachusetts.) Santorum, facing tough re-election odds in 2006, ran anyway and was trounced by double digits. "Why did you bail out?" Santorum said.When asked how conservatives could trust him to promote their agenda, Romney replied: "They've got my record as governor." That answer may come back to haunt him, offering an easy opening for attack over his support for a state-sponsored health care program.
Later in the debate, the focus shifted away from Romney, and moved toward discussions over how the candidates would promote policies that lower heating bills and whether they would champion gay rights. (Watch video of Mitt Romney championing gay rights below.) The banter during this time stayed relatively friendly, but the debate picked up again near the end when moderators asked about ads run by "super PACs" that support Romney and Gingrich. This election cycle has seen an influx of non-campaign money spent on attack ads that have allowed the campaigns to essentially outsource their mud-slinging to outside groups. When pressed about the content of the ads his Super PAC ran against Gingrich, Romney said that if the ads were wrong or misleading, then they should be taken down.
Interestingly, both candidates said they had not seen the ads produced by the Super PACs that employ many of their former staffers, but then had no trouble listing the specific attacks within them.
"The rhetoric is a little over the top," Romney said of Gingrich's Super PAC ads.
"You think my rhetoric is over the top but your ads are totally reasonable?" Gingrich replied..