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Five things we learned from Saturday's GOP debate

By the CNN Political Unit
updated 5:41 AM EST, Sun January 8, 2012
GOP candidates faced off Saturday in the first of two debates leading up to the New Hampshire primary on January 10.
GOP candidates faced off Saturday in the first of two debates leading up to the New Hampshire primary on January 10.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Candidates debate in New Hampshire, but may have been looking ahead to South Carolina
  • Front-runner Mitt Romney fends off GOP rivals in Saturday's debate
  • Ron Paul did not back down from comments he levied against his opponents
  • Gingrich falls on media for Romney attacks

(CNN) -- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the front-runner in the race for the nomination, came under attack from his rivals -- but so did the candidate on the rise, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who came in an extremely close second to Romney in Tuesday's Iowa caucuses.

So what did we learn from Saturday's GOP debate in New Hampshire.

It's onto the next state

With polls showing Mitt Romney a virtual lock in New Hampshire, the candidates will soon shift their efforts to South Carolina, the more socially conservative third state to vote on the road to the White House.

GOP showdown in New Hampshire
Mitt Romney campaign operation in NH
Santorum: Obama 'snobbery' on college
The value of N.H. independent voters

On Saturday night, it seemed the candidates were already there.

The attention paid to social issues during the debate was perhaps a sign the race has bypassed the Granite State and moved along to South Carolina, where issues such as gay marriage and abortion play a greater role among evangelical voters.

The candidates largely stuck to their stances on gay marriage and abortion, with a disproportionate amount of time spent discussing contraception, which former Sen. Rick Santorum has said theoretically a state should have the right to ban.

When repeatedly pushed on the issue, Romney said the issue was moot because no state was pushing for a ban.

"Contraception: it's working just fine. Just leave it alone," he said, to laughter in the audience.

If it is legal to import birth control pills, it should be legal to sell them, said Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

After a lengthy discussion, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said he was pleased the conversation shifted.

"I've been married for 28 years. I have seven kids," Huntsman said. "Glad we're off the contraception discussion."

Romney skates through -- skill or luck?

The time is drawing exceedingly short for a candidate to knock long-time front-runner Mitt Romney off his game in New Hampshire, and this debate seemed to do little to change the state of play. (Romney emerges unscathed in contentious GOP debate)

Even when other candidates slighted Romney -- Rick Perry referred to an "insider from Wall Street" and Gingrich went after his rival's private sector record by repeatedly citing an article by The New York Times -- the jabs were either veiled or dispassionate. (Using The New York Times to back up your arguments might not excite the conservative base.)

In the spin room following the debate, many disagreed with the idea Romney got off scot-free -- especially Romney's advisers.

"I think Gov. Romney did so well that you think nobody attacked him," Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom told a gaggle of journalists.

And Rick Santorum, who is hoping to encroach on Romney's terrain in New Hampshire, also demurred.

"I did attack Romney. I repeatedly attacked Romney," he said. "I'm surprised that people thought I didn't."

He'll have another chance to draw blood at a second debate Sunday morning.

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Race for second place in New Hampshire
Ron Paul: "We are dangerous"
Gingrich discusses drug policy

Ron Paul punches hard -- in person

Ron Paul was one of the few candidates to repeat to his rivals' faces the same harsh criticism he's unleashed in ads or on the campaign trail.

Paul stood firm in calling Santorum "corrupt" and Gingrich a "chicken hawk" for not having served in the military.

"Would you -- would you use that phrase [chicken hawk] again?" moderator Diane Sawyer asked Paul.

"Yeah," Paul responded. "I think people who don't serve when they could and they get three or four or even five deferments aren't -- they have no right to send our kids off to war."

"I'm trying to stop the wars," he said. "But at least, you know, I went when they called me up."

Gingrich responded with anger.

"Dr. Paul has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false," he said, denying he had asked for a deferment and pointing out his father had served overseas. "I think I have a pretty good idea of what it's like as a family to worry about your father getting killed, and I personally resent the kinds of comments and aspersions [Paul] routinely makes without accurate information and then just slurs people." (CNN Truth Squad: Fact checking the GOP debate)

Gingrich falls on media for Romney attacks

Newt Gingrich handled frontrunner Mitt Romney with kid gloves Saturday and used the media to do his dirty work. With the exception of a heated exchange with Ron Paul about not serving in the military, Gingrich released his venom not on the candidates, but on the media -- a strategy that has benefited him in the past.

When the discussion turned to gay marriage on Saturday, he accused the debate hosts of media bias.

"I just want to raise a point about the news media bias," he said. "You don't hear the opposite question asked."

He seized on a recent Wall Street Journal editorial that called Romney, the former Massachusetts governor's economic plan "timid," but he refused in the debate to take ownership of recycling the line in advertisements and speeches.

"[The Wall Street Journal] said that, by contrast -- this is their words, not mine -- that Gov. Romney's program was timid and more like Obama," Gingrich said. "Now, I would think those are fighting words. And, frankly, if he wants to fight with The Wall Street Journal on that, I wouldn't blame him."

Santorum holds back?

Rick Santorum frequently calls himself a "warrior," but at Saturday's debate, he stood firm against his rivals instead of launching battles against them.

Santorum seemed to pass on multiple opportunities to strike first, though he did defend himself when challenged.

When one of the debate hosts asked Santorum if he was referring to Mitt Romney when he said America does not need a CEO or manager as president, Santorum initially passed on the opportunity to name him.

"Well, we need a leader, someone who can paint a positive vision for this country, someone who, you know, has the experience to go out and be the commander-in-chief," Santorum said, highlighting his experience on military issues in Congress.

But when he was pressed further, responded: "The manager part. Yeah, well, of course I was talking about Gov. Romney."

"The commander-in-chief of this country isn't a CEO. It's someone who has to -- has to lead, and it's also -- being the president is not a CEO," he added.

When Paul branded Santorum as "corrupt" because of ties to lobbyists, Santorum firmly defended himself. And yet, there was no major knockout punch to beat back such a harsh claim from Paul.

CNN's Gabriella Schwarz, Shannon Travis, Shawna Shepherd and Rachel Streitfeld contributed to this report.

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