Five things learned from the GOP debate

The six major Republican presidential candidates gather on stage before Sunday's debate in Concord, New Hampshire.

Story highlights

  • The candidates seem to relish a chance to follow up on Saturday's debate
  • Huntsman: "I will always put my country first"
  • Santorum offers perhaps his strongest statement on gay rights
  • Gingrich, Romney say they have worked with Democrats to hammer out deals
Five things learned from Sunday's GOP debate:
Everybody gets their follow-up
There's been a lot of grousing about the back-to-back debate schedule but, in fact, the candidates seemed to relish the chance to follow up on their performances Saturday night.
Both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were panned for failing to land a blow on Mitt Romney Saturday. That changed within the opening minutes of Monday's match-up, with both candidates moving aggressively against Romney right out of the gate.
Meanwhile, Jon Huntsman had clearly been thinking about Romney's Saturday criticism of his service as ambassador to China under President Barack Obama. Huntsman took the opportunity to respond Sunday.
"I was criticized last night by Gov. Romney for putting my country first," he said. "I will always put my country first. I think that's important."
The one candidate clearly put to a disadvantage by the opportunity to fix Saturday night's mistakes: Romney, the longtime front-runner who skated through the first debate untouched and who is hoping to maintain the status quo days before New Hampshire voters head to the polls.
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Looking ahead to the general election?
As in Saturday's debate, gay rights once again played a role in this one. Rick Santorum -- a man who has run on a predominantly social values platform -- offered perhaps his strongest statement of homosexual support to date, saying he would not repudiate a son who told him he was gay.
He was careful, however, not to say that he would fight for gay individuals, instead saying he would be an advocate for "every person in America" and would make sure people are treated with "respect and dignity."
"That does not mean that I would agree with certain things that the gay community would like to do to change laws, with respect to marriage, with respect to adoption and things like that," he said.
On the same topic, Mitt Romney said he has hired gay staffers in the past and would never discriminate against gays or attempt to take away their rights.
Are these two men looking ahead to a general election, where strong social conservative values may not play as well on a national scale? Perhaps. Over the past few years the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights movement has made strides, and many question whether someone who is not pro-LGBT could win a general election in the United States in 2012.
That said, social issues played a big role in Iowa, and will do so again in South Carolina. Santorum's answer may have been a good middle-of-the-road response, and a reminder of a phrase often used by Christian conservatives: love the sinner, not the sin.
That may be a message to which conservative voters in the upcoming state of South Carolina can relate.
Dealing with Democrats
Calls for bipartisanship at a GOP presidential debate?
Could it be?
Both former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney touted their records of working with Democrats to hammer out legislative deals.
Gingrich, who is best know for battling President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, highlighted that he struck deals with the Democratic president, even though he wanted to make him "a one-term president."
And Romney noted that when he was running Massachusetts, the state legislature was 85% Democratic, but that he found "common ground," adding that he's proven that he can "work with Republicans and Democrats who are willing to work together."
Rick Santorum touted his ability to gain support among voters of both parties in his former Pennsylvania district, and Huntsman said serving one's country should always trump party loyalty.
But before candidates can work on uniting the party, they will have to triumph over their rivals as the bruising GOP primary plays out this winter.
Huntsman's last stand?
Since former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is placing all his chips on a strong finish in New Hampshire's Tuesday primary, this weekend's two presidential debates were his last, best chance to make his case for the GOP nomination. Saturday's lukewarm performance by Huntsman, who has failed to gain much traction in the polls, was followed by a stronger delivery on Sunday morning.
After coming under attack Saturday night by bitter rival Mitt Romney for his service as U.S. ambassador to China during the first two years of President Barack Obama's term, Huntsman Sunday strongly defended his time in Beijing. But he also highlighted his fiscal plans as in tune with conservative Republican principles.
And in a state where independent voters could determine who wins the primary, Huntsman made his pitch, saying "the American people are tired of the partisan division. They have had enough. And I say, we've had enough, and we have to change our direction in terms of coming together as Americans first and foremost and finding solutions to our problems."
No one taking super PAC high road
Gingrich finally had his face-off with Romney over super PAC ads that have been a negative undercurrent in the 2012 race. Both candidates ignored a question Sunday about whether they would agree to urge super PACs supporting their candidacy to take down negative advertisements.
It became clear, as long as the claims in the influential ads are factually accurate, neither Gingrich nor Romney is above letting the groups do their mudslinging for them.
Gingrich, the former speaker who has been the target of a majority of the negative super PAC ads, endorsed an upcoming movie-length spot about Romney and his work with venture capital firm Bain Capital.
"I agree with (Romney), it takes broad shoulders to run. If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen," Gingrich said. "When the 27-and-a-half minute movie comes out, I hope it's accurate. I can say publicly I hope that the super PAC runs an accurate movie about Bain."
Gingrich also took aim at the front-runner for dishing "pious baloney" about his political history and reasons for launching a White House bid.
"I realize the red light doesn't mean anything to you because you're the front-runner," Gingrich said. "But can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?"
And Romney chided Gingrich for his campaign trail rhetoric.
"Mr. Speaker, I wouldn't say some of the things you've called me in public," Romney said. "I think that's just over the top."