Five things we learned from back-to-back debates

Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry gather for their debate Sunday.

Story highlights

  • Romney's opponents step up their attacks over the weekend
  • Social issues will play a large role in South Carolina
  • Gingrich, Romney tout their bipartisan efforts
  • Paul repeats harsh criticism to opponents' faces

Republican presidential candidates faced off twice in 11 hours on Saturday and Sunday in debates ahead of Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. While both debates were staged in the Granite State, it was clear that the rivals intended for their messages to go beyond New Hampshire.

Here are five things we learned from the weekend.

Romney's debating skills on display

Neither debate did much to change the state of play in New Hampshire. Front-runner Mitt Romney's rivals went after him in both debates.

Even when other candidates slighted Romney -- Rick Perry referred to an "insider from Wall Street," and Gingrich went after Romney's private-sector record by repeatedly citing an article by The New York Times -- the jabs were either veiled or dispassionate.

And using The New York Times to back up an argument probably won't excite the conservative base.

Romney's opponents did step up their attacks between Saturday and Sunday, but then they seemed to back off. CNN.com Opinion contributor Todd Graham, an award-winning college debating coach, speculated that Romney's rivals dropped the direct attacks because they were "worried about overcorrecting, appearing rude, and alienating voters (Gingrich came close when he told Romney to 'drop the pious baloney') -- or in the heat of the moment, they forgot their coaching once the second debate was under way."

Graham concluded that between Romney's polished debating skills and sometimes poor debating by his rivals, he has only solidified his position.

Looking ahead to the general election?

Over the past few years, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights movement has made strides, and many question whether someone who is not a supporter of the movement could win a general election in 2012.

Such rights played a role in both debates. Rick Santorum, 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."

On the same topic, 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?

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, hate the sin.

That may be a message to which conservative voters in South Carolina can relate.

Message received?

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Americans have made clear their disdain for Congress, partisan politics and theatrics bringing government to a standstill.

Both Gingrich and Romney touted their records of working with Democrats to hammer out legislative deals.

Gingrich, who is best known 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 proved he can "work with Republicans and Democrats who are willing to work together."

Santorum touted his ability to gain support among voters of both parties in his former Pennsylvania district, and Huntsman said that 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, the debates were his last, best chance to make his case.

Saturday's lukewarm performance was followed by a stronger delivery on Sunday morning.

After coming under attack Saturday night by Romney for his service as U.S. ambassador to China during the first two years of President Barack Obama's term, Huntsman strongly defended his time in Beijing on Sunday. But he also highlighted his fiscal plans as in tune with conservative Republican principles.

And in a state where independent voters hold sway, 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."

Ron Paul punches hard -- in person

The candidates have let super political action committees that support them do their dirty work on the campaign trail, spending millions on attack ads.

But 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 use that phrase (chicken hawk) again?" moderator Diane Sawyer asked Paul on Saturday.

"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 that he had asked for a deferment and pointing out that 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."

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