MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Five top Republican presidential contenders sparred over taxes and spending Sunday night in a debate that touched on the value of Washington experience.
McCain told Romney, "I led the largest squadron in the U.S. Navy, not for profit but for patriotism."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney got out of the 90-minute debate on the Fox News Channel without the kind of beating he took Saturday from two of his leading rivals -- former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who swamped him in the Iowa caucuses last week, and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who is leading in the CNN-WMUR poll of New Hampshire Republicans released Sunday.
Romney said he accomplished much of what McCain sought to do in Washington during the four years he led the Granite State's southern neighbor.
"Washington needs fundamental, top-to-bottom change," said Romney, who gained national attention for overhauling the 2002 Winter Olympic effort before being elected governor of Massachusetts. "We're not going to have somebody inside Washington turn Washington inside-out. It's just not going to happen," he said.
McCain shot back that he had fought for taxpayers by opposing pork-barrel spending, claiming a $2 billion savings by getting the Air Force to dump a controversial deal with aircraft giant Boeing for a new fleet of tanker aircraft. And he cited his experience as a Navy pilot during and after the Vietnam War, when he said he led the service's largest squadron "not for profit, but for patriotism."
"I also have the broad-based experience and knowledge and background to make decisions over the major national security challenges that have faced this nation over the last 20 years," he said. "I've been involved in literally every one of them."
McCain won New Hampshire's primary in 2000, during his first bid for the White House. He defended his votes against President Bush's tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 in notoriously tax-averse New Hampshire, arguing that they should have been accompanied by spending cuts.
Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor, won in Iowa with strong turnout from evangelical Christians. He is running third in more libertarian New Hampshire, according to Sunday's CNN-WMUR poll, ranking just ahead of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Watch Huckabee discuss his momentum »
He advocates replacing the income tax with a national sales tax, which critics say would disproportionately impact the poor, but leading economic conservatives have attacked him for raising taxes in Arkansas. While he said he cut taxes numerous times during his 10 years as the state's governor, he defended a tax increase he supported in Arkansas as necessary to meet a court-ordered school reform plan.
"Maybe you don't have to obey the court in Massachusetts. I did in Arkansas," he told Romney. "And you know something? Education is a good thing for kids, because kids like me wouldn't be sitting here if it weren't for education."
Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson said he liked parts of Huckabee's tax plan because "It's moving toward reform and it's simplified." But he said the Constitution would still allow for an income tax, and "I'm a little bit concerned that we would wind up with a consumption-type tax and an income tax later on."
The former lobbyist and "Law and Order" actor said his own plan would flatten rates to two tiers -- 10 percent for individual incomes of $50,000 or less, and 25 percent above that, with no deductions beyond personal exemptions.
"I think we would see a lot of people move toward that and it would be a major step toward substantial tax reform, which, of course, is necessary," he said.
Giuliani, meanwhile, warned that Democratic calls for "change" would mean higher taxes and a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.
"If you think that's a good change, well, that's the direction you want to go in. I think the good change is lowering taxes," he said.
Neither Hunter nor Libertarian-turned-Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas were in Sunday's forum, which included only candidates who rated 10 percent support or more in an average of national polls. Watch Paul talk about being excluded »
In New Hampshire, Paul was in fifth place, at 10 percent, according to Sunday's CNN-WMUR poll. California Rep. Duncan Hunter, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, had 1 percent.
Thompson had 1 percent in New Hampshire, too, according to the latest poll, but drew an average of 11 percent nationally, in a CNN average of national polls from December. E-mail to a friend
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