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Associated Press/Photo by Elise Amendola

Laying low

Politics | GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney avoids attacks in Saturday's New Hampshire debate, as his rivals turn on one another

Before Saturday night's nationally televised Republican presidential debate, the first one of 2012, ABC aired the game show Wipeout, where contestants maneuver elaborate obstacle courses that often lead to cringe-inducing face plants.

Maybe network schedulers were hoping that such a lead-in would encourage similar risky antics by the six Republicans left standing in the political obstacle course leading to the GOP nomination. But, despite occasional lively discussions, the 100-minute debate did not offer enough drama to shake up the race.

No one wiped out. And no one had a signature moment electrifying enough to help him overtake current frontrunner Mitt Romney, who spent the night laying low while his rivals attacked one another.

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Trying to capitalize on his Iowa surge, Rick Santorum characterized Romney as being a manager not a leader. "The commander in chief of this country isn't being a CEO," the former senator from Pennsylvania said. "You've got to lead and inspire."

But Romney shot back, depicting Santorum as part of the political establishment. "I think people who spend their lives in Washington don't understand what happens out in the real economy," said the former governor of Massachusetts.

That initial jab was one of the few attacks Romney had to dodge.

Ron Paul, who earned a surprising amount of screen time during the debate's first half, decided to assist Romney by going after both Santorum and Gingrich.

The Texas congressman questioned Santorum's conservative bona fides. "He's a big-government, big-spending individual," said Paul during a lengthy exchange. "He became a high-powered lobbyist."

"You're not telling the truth," Santorum replied.

Things got testier when Paul turned his attention toward Gingrich's lack of military experience. "People who don't serve when they could and they get three or four, even five deferments-they have no right to send our kids off to war," Paul said.

Gingrich responded that his father served in Vietnam and that he understands what it is like "to worry about your father getting killed," adding, "I never asked for a deferment. I was married with a child."

Paul countered, "When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids, and I went."

This back and forth between Paul and Santorum and then Paul and Gingrich allowed Romney to sit back and watch the accusations fly without being the aggressor or suffering any political damage of his own. It was hard to miss the grin on Romney's face as he watched the other candidates go after one another as they tried to establish themselves as the best not-Romney option.

The frontrunners on stage mostly did agree when it came to supporting a constitutional amendment affirming marriage as being between one man and one woman.

Santorum said same-sex couples who have been married under state laws would no longer be married if such a federal amendment passed, a comment that may not help his chances in Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, where gay marriage is legal. But his conservative stand in a liberal-leaning state likely will help him in the next primary in more conservative South Carolina. A strong finish there is crucial for Santorum.

The debate's moderators-ABC News' Diane Sawyer and George and Josh McElveen from the local ABC affiliate-spent a good deal of time on the same-sex marriage issue. And Gingrich turned their questioning around to get one of the biggest rounds of applause of the night. The former speaker of the House argued that the media doesn't devote enough time looking at social issues from the conservative side, citing the lack of coverage about the Catholic Church closing adoption services in Massachusetts because of its position on adoptions by same-sex couples.

"The bigotry question goes both ways," Gingrich said, "and there is a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is concerning the other side, and none of it gets covered."

Rick Perry, trying to get back into the race after a dismal showing in Iowa, jumped in on the marriage debate to get his share of the audience's applause: "This administration's war on religion is what bothers me greatly."

The Texas governor later made waves by being the only candidate on stage to endorse redeploying troops back into Iraq. "We are going to see Iran move back in at literally the speed of light," Perry said.

While surviving most of the debate unscathed and enjoying it, Romney decided in the forum's final segment that he hadn't gotten enough face time. He launched into a soliloquy about what he sees as the real issue of this campaign, saying that it is not just about budgets, jobs, and entitlement reform.

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