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Entries in ABC News (33)

Wednesday
Jul252012

Exclusive: Laura Bush on Skipping GOP Convention, Commitment to AIDS Initiatives

Martin H. Simon / ABC(WASHINGTON) -- You won’t see former president George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush at the Republican National convention this year. He’s not attending and that’s just fine with his wife, who told ABC News’ Jonathan Karl today the couple is done with politics.

But that doesn’t mean they’re out of public life. Laura Bush outlined key initiatives she and her husband will continue to work on and she made a pitch for the importance of foreign aid, a budget item many recently elected Republicans would like to see cut.

Missing the GOP Convention in Tampa next month won’t be a big deal, according to Laura Bush, who pointed out that she and the former president gave a pep talk to Mitt Romney’s staff in Boston on Tuesday. And she said it’s not hard for her or her husband to stay on the sidelines even as Democrats criticize his legacy.

“We know what politics is like,” she said. “We know that, you know, people love to blame somebody else.  That’s just a fact of life in politics…I think George makes an easy target.”

“It doesn’t bother us,” she said.

Her advice to Ann Romney is to enjoy the campaign and getting to travel around the country and meet people. But she said the campaigns should avoid attacks on the spouses of the candidates.

“I’m sorry that first ladies are being attacked.  I don’t think they– I don’t think I ever was really, or at least if I was, George didn’t ever tell me about it,” she said.

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While Americans can view politics as divisive and full of personal attacks, Laura Bush, 65, said she looks back on politics–what she called “a people business”–fondly.

“Of course when you watch from the sidelines, you think it must be horrible,” she said.  ”But it’s not.  And politics is a people business.  And if you like people, you know, it’s a really fun thing to do.  But on the other hand–we can stay involved through the Bush Institute with the policy areas that are the most important to us.  And be out of politics.  And that’s pretty great too.”

True to her word, the former first lady brushed aside a question about her policy differences with her husband and the Republican Party.

“Well, I don’t know.  And I’m not going to get into that political issue.  And in fact I can’t believe you asked it,” she said with a laugh.

The focus of their time out of the White House, she said, will be building off the success of the PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDs Relief) and continuing to work to fight AIDS in Africa and worldwide. President Bush worked to pledge $15 billion in American tax dollars to the program as president and now gets bipartisan kudos for the effort. He and Laura recently completed a trip to Africa where they helped bring attention to the issue and even got in some manual labor, painting a rural health clinic in Zambia.

“George of course still has the convening power of any former president of the U.S.  And– that’s why we can– now spend the– rest of our lives with the Bush Institute in Dallas, working on issues that were important to us when he was president.  We’re out of politics, but we’re still interested in policy and– and global health, obviously.”

They also plan initiatives through the Bush Institute dealing with education reform, human freedom and economic growth. Laura Bush said they will build off their work on AIDS to help women in developing countries screen for cervical cancer.

It’s hard to imagine Congress today with the long-stagnant economy and the emphasis of the Tea Party – enacting a $15 billion foreign aid bill, but Mrs. Bush said she’s confident that money would still be approved.

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“Foreign aid is a very miniscule part of our budget.  I don’t think people realize how small it is.  I think it’s only 1 percent,” she said, later adding, “I think there’s a very strong coalition in Congress who know that it’s in our moral interest as a country– the wealthiest country in the world and we still are the wealthiest country in the world– to help other people if we can.  If we have the capacity to help.”

ABC News played for her its interview with Elton John, where the liberal singer and AIDS activist gave the former Republican president high marks on PEPFAR and working to combat the spread of AIDS.

Laura said her husband should get credit for making the issue a priority. But she said all Americans should be proud.

“It isn’t George.  I mean, George did think of it and his administration did work on it for a long time to figure– to see if it really was feasible, to be able to reach that many people in Africa.  But– but it’s the American taxpayer who funded it.  And Americans should be very, very proud.”

This week Laura Bush is set to address the International AIDS Conference, which is being held in the U.S. for the first time in 22 years.

“The goal is that each of these countries will be able to develop the health infrastructure.  So that they’ll be self-sustaining.  And so that this– help that comes from the American people and from people around the world, through the global fund, won’t be necessary some day.”

“I think in the United States, about 600,000 people have died of AIDS,” said Laura Bush. “And of course, across Africa, many millions of people.  And across the world, the– the new hot spots for AIDS and the pandemic are Asia now and maybe even in the Middle East, They’re much more closed, and there’s much more stigma still associated with it.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
Jul182012

Exclusive: Marco Rubio ‘Honored’ By Tea Party’s VP Nod

ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- Sen. Marco Rubio today got the nod to be the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee — from the nation’s largest Tea Party group, not Mitt Romney.

The Florida senator — the only Republican whom Romney has confirmed is being vetted for a No. 2 spot on the ticket — was the top preferred choice of thousands of surveyed Tea Party Express members, the group announced today.

“It is not a big surprise that Marco Rubio is the favorite candidate of the tea party for the vice-presidential nod.  He ran as a strong fiscal conservative, and he has delivered with his record in the U.S. Senate for the last two years,” said the group’s president Amy Kremer in a statement. “The only surprise is that he led the other excellent candidates by such a wide margin.”

Others named included Reps. Paul Ryan and Allen West, former senator Rick Santorum, and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

Asked about the “nomination” by ABC News, Rubio gushed about his affinity for the tea party movement.

“I’m always honored by my association with the tea party,” he said in an exclusive interview with ABC News Radio’s Ann Compton.

“I think the tea party has been a very positive movement for America. The tea party is not a partisan group. Somehow people think the tea party is a Republican movement. There are a lot of Republicans in the tea party, but what I’ve found is that the tea party movement are people that are just as upset at the Republican Party as they are the Democratic Party,” he said.

“You don’t run a $15, $16 trillion debt without some bipartisan cooperation… Unfortunately one party is in charge now at the White House and taking us in that wrong direction even faster than before, and they’re just looking for people who will come up here and stand up to that and offer a clear alternative.”

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Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Friday
Jul062012

ABC’s Latest Electoral College Estimates: Obama Vulnerable in Midwest

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/iStockphoto/ThinkstockBy AMY WALTER, ABC News Political Director

(WASHINGTON) -- As President Obama wraps up a bus-tour through the nation’s heartland, the latest ABC News Electoral College estimate shows new vulnerability for him in the Midwest.

Recent polling shows a closer-than-expected contest in Michigan, a traditionally Democratic stronghold. Both Republicans and Democrats also see Wisconsin, a state Obama easily carried in 2008, as much more competitive this year. There are some Republicans who expect to see Minnesota in play.

See an interactive map here to understand how swing states could change November’s result.

Overall, however, President Obama leads Mitt Romney in the race to the 270 Electoral Votes needed to capture the White House. We list 247 electoral votes as either “leaning” or “solid” for Obama, compared to 191 for Romney.

Of the 100 electoral votes that we consider toss-ups, over half (57) are from fast-growing states that are demographically diverse — such as Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina and Virginia. That should help Obama, who continues to poll well among Latino and African-American voters. Of those toss-ups, North Carolina will be the toughest for Obama to hold, while Colorado and Virginia will probably be the toughest for Romney to pick up.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
May092012

ABC News Exclusive: President Obama Affirms His Support for Same-Sex Marriage

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama announced Wednesday that he now supports same-sex marriage, reversing his longstanding opposition amid growing pressure from the Democratic base and even his own vice president.

In an interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts, the president described his thought process as an “evolution” that led him to this place, based on conversations with his own staff members, openly gay and lesbian service members, and conversations with his wife and own daughters.

"I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage -- at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married,” Obama told Roberts, in an interview to appear on ABC’s Good Morning America Thursday. Excerpts of the interview will air tonight on ABC’s World News with Diane Sawyer.

The president stressed that this is a personal position, and that he still supports the concept of states deciding the issue on their own. But he said he’s confident that more Americans will grow comfortable with gays and lesbians getting married, citing his own daughters’ comfort with the concept.

“It’s interesting, some of this is also generational,” the president continued. “You know, when I go to college campuses, sometimes I talk to college Republicans who think that I have terrible policies on the economy, on foreign policy, but are very clear that when it comes to same sex equality or, you know, sexual orientation that they believe in equality. They are much more comfortable with it. You know, Malia and Sasha, they have friends whose parents are same-sex couples. There have been times where Michelle and I have been sitting around the dinner table and we’re talking about their friends and their parents and Malia and Sasha, it wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them and frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.”

Roberts asked the president if first lady Michelle Obama was involved in this decision. Obama said she was, and he talked specifically about his own faith in responding.

“This is something that, you know, we’ve talked about over the years and she, you know, she feels the same way, she feels the same way that I do. And that is that, in the end the values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.”

Previously, Obama has moved in the direction of supporting same-sex marriage but has consistently stopped short of outright backing it.

[ VIEW SLIDESHOW: "Timeline: Key Moments in Fight for Gay Rights" ]

Instead, he’s voiced support for civil unions for gay and lesbian couples that provide the rights and benefits enjoyed by married couples, though not defined as “marriage.” At the same time, the president has opposed efforts to ban gay marriage at the state level, saying that he did not favor attempts to strip rights away from gay and lesbian couples.

The president’s position became a flashpoint this week, when Vice President Joe Biden pronounced himself “absolutely comfortable” with allowing same-sex couples to wed.

Obama aides insisted there was no daylight between the positions held by the president and his vice president when it comes to legal rights.  However, as other prominent Democrats also weighed in in favor of gay marriage, the disconnect became difficult for the White House to explain away.

The announcement completes a turnabout for the president, who has opposed gay marriage throughout his career in national politics. In 1996, as a state Senate candidate, he indicated support for gay marriage in a questionnaire, but Obama aides later disavowed it and said it did not reflect the candidate’s position.

In 2004, as a candidate for the U.S. Senate, he cited his own religion in framing his views: “I'm a Christian. I do believe that tradition and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.”

He maintained that position through his 2008 presidential campaign and through his term as president, until today.

As president in 2010, Obama told ABC’s Jake Tapper that his feelings about gay marriage were “constantly evolving. I struggle with this.” A year later, the president told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, “I’m still working on it.”

“I probably won't make news right now, George,” Obama said in October 2011. “But I think that there's no doubt that as I see friends, families, children of gay couples who are thriving, you know, that has an impact on how I think about these issues.”

Obama’s decision has political connotations for the fall. The issue divides elements of the Democratic base, with liberals and gay-rights groups eager to see the president go farther, but with gay marriage far less popular among African-American voters.

Just yesterday in North Carolina, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage. President Obama carried North Carolina in 2008, and its status as a 2012 battleground was guaranteed by the Democratic party's decision to hold their convention in Charlotte this summer.

Obama’s likely Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, opposes gay marriage, and fought his state’s highest court when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage in 2004, while Romney was governor. Romney said on the campaign trail Monday that he continues to oppose gay marriage.

“My view is that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman,” Romney said. “That’s the position I’ve had for some time, and I don’t intend to make any adjustments at this point. … Or ever, by the way.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Wednesday
May092012

Timeline of Obama’s ‘Evolving’ on Same-Sex Marriage

Win McNamee/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama will sit down with ABC’s Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts on Wednesday at the White House for a wide-ranging interview, his first since Vice President Joe Biden publicly voiced his support for same-sex marriage and North Carolina voters imposed a new ban on all same-sex unions.

Asked Tuesday whether Obama was prepared to opine on the debate, White House spokesman Jay Carney said, “I can tell you that I’m sure it is the case that he will be asked again at some point when he gives interviews or press conferences about this issue, and I’ll leave it to him to describe his personal views.”

Here’s a look back at the various positions he has held on the issue -- from appearing to support the unions as a young state senate candidate, opposing them outright as a matter of faith in 2004, to suggesting a shift in line with public opinion:

FEBRUARY 1996: “I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages,” reads a typed, signed statement from then-Illinois state senate candidate Obama in response to a questionnaire by the Chicago LGBT newspaper Outlines.  White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer later publicly disavowed the statement, claiming in June 2011 that the questionnaire was “actually filled out by someone else.”

OCTOBER 2004: “What I believe is that marriage is between a man and a woman … What I believe, in my faith, is that a man and a woman, when they get married, are performing something before God, and it’s not simply the two persons who are meeting,” then-U.S. Senate candidate Obama said in an interview with WTTW Chicago public television.

“That doesn’t mean that that necessarily translates into a position on public policy or with respect to civil unions. What it does mean is that we have a set of traditions in place that, I think, need to be preserved, but I also think we need to make sure that gays and lesbians have the same set of basic rights that are in place.

“I don’t think marriage is a civil right,” Obama said when asked whether there’s an inherent right to marry.

OCTOBER 2010: “I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage,” President Obama said during an interview with liberal bloggers. “But I also think you’re right that attitudes evolve, including mine. And I think that it is an issue that I wrestle with and think about because I have a whole host of friends who are in gay partnerships.”

DECEMBER 2010: “My feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this. At this point, what I’ve said is, is that my baseline is a strong civil union that provides them the protections and the legal rights that married couples have,” Obama said in response to a question from ABC’s Jake Tapper at a White House press conference.

“I recognize that from their perspective it is not enough, and I think is something that we’re going to continue to debate and I personally am going to continue to wrestle with going forward,” he said.

JUNE 2011: “The president has never favored same-sex marriage. He is against it. The country is evolving on this, and he is evolving on it,” Pfeiffer told progressive activists at the Net Roots Nation conference.

JUNE 2011: “I think it’s important for us to work through these issues because each community is going to be different, each state is going to be different,” Obama said when asked during a White House news conference about New York becoming the latest state to legalize same-sex marriage.

“I think what you’re seeing is a profound recognition on the part of the American people that gays and lesbians and transgender persons are our brothers, our sisters, our children, our cousins, our friends, our co-workers, and that they’ve got to be treated like every other American,” he said. “And I think that principle will win out. It’s not going to be perfectly smooth, and it turns out that the president — I’ve discovered since I’ve been in this office — can’t dictate precisely how this process moves.”

OCTOBER 2011: “I’m still working on it,” Obama said when asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos whether he would move from supporting civil unions for same-sex couples to supporting gay marriage.

“I probably won’t make news right now, George. But I think that there’s no doubt that as I see friends, families children of gay couples who are thriving, you know, that has an impact on how I think about these issues.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Monday
Apr162012

Romney Tells Obama to ‘Start Packing’ in ABC News Interview

ABC/ Ida Mae Astute(BOSTON) -- Acting very much like the GOP nominee, Mitt Romney sent a curt message to President Obama today:  “Start packing.”

The message, delivered with a chuckle, came in an exclusive interview with ABC’s “World News” anchor Diane Sawyer who asked the presumptive GOP nominee if he had something to say to the president.

Romney said Obama’s “policies have not helped the American people.  They have not helped get jobs, they have not helped raise incomes and they’ve added trillions of dollars of debt.”

He was backed by his wife of 43 years, Ann Romney, who told Sawyer she also had a message for Obama. “I believe it’s… Mitt’s time… It’s our turn now,” she said.

See the exclusive interview Monday at 6:30 p.m. ET on ABC’s World News With Diane Sawyer and 11:35 p.m. ET on Nightline.

Last week, the Romney campaign was able to flip the Democrats’ so-called “war on women” strategy by highlighting a Democratic strategist’s attacks on Ann Romney for never holding a job. Ann Romney told a GOP fundraiser this weekend that the failed Democratic talking point had been a “birthday gift.”

“That wasn’t how I meant it,” Ann Romney told Sawyer. “It was a birthday gift to me because I love the fact that we’re talking about this.”

Following former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s exit from the race last week, a bruised but unbowed Romney has entered a new phase in his campaign.

So confident in his march to this summer’s convention in Tampa, Fla., Romney told Sawyer he had already taken steps toward selecting a running mate, relying on a long-trusted aide to head the search committee.

“I have selected someone who has been a counselor of mine for a number of years, Beth Myers, she was my chief of staff when I was governor,” he said.

Looking forward to the general election, Romney has both sharpened his attacks on the president and become a greater target.

Many of the attacks from the left center of Romney’s persona as an out of touch millionaire, so rich he not only owns multiple cars but is building a garage outfitted with an elevator to hold them at a home in La Jolla, Calif.

Romney dismissed a question about whether he could relate to working people, saying Americans don’t judge people based on class.

“We don’t divide America based upon success and wealth and other dimensions of that nature.  We’re one nation under God ….  This is a time when people of different backgrounds and different experiences need to come together.  I happen to believe that I’m by far the best qualified in this race between myself and President Obama,” Romney told Sawyer.

When asked about Obama’s suggestion that Romney release 12 years of his tax returns, Romney said he had no intention of doing that.

“The president is going to try and do everything possible to divert from the attention being focused upon his record as president and the failure of his economic policies. So he’s going to try to make this campaign about the fact that I’ve been successful, that I’ve made a lot of money,” he said.

Dogged through the primary by his conservative challengers about his switch from being a pro-abortion governor to an anti-abortion presidential candidate, Romney honed his pro-life position, telling Sawyer he wanted the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“I would love the Supreme Court to say, ‘Let’s send this back to the states.’ Rather than having a federal mandate through Roe v. Wade, let the states again consider this issue state by state,” he said, effectively ending the federal ban on abortion.

Abortion is just one issue in which Romney has had trouble with women voters, a bloc that polls find him trailing behind Obama.

In a lighter moment Romney admitted to watching – even setting his DVR to record – Jason Sudeikis’ impersonation of him on “Saturday Night Live.” Romney said he’d consider appearing on the show, but it would “depend on the nature of the skit.”

“I just want it be funny,” he said.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Tuesday
Mar062012

WATCH LIVE: Super Tuesday Coverage from ABC News & Yahoo!

(NEW YORK) -- Voters in 10 states are making their picks for the Republican presidential nomination on Tuesday, the biggest single day of contests in the race.

Below, watch live streaming video coverage of Super Tuesday, featuring the political teams of ABC News and Yahoo! This coverage will be anchored by ABC News political director Amy Walter and Yahoo!'s David Chalian. They will be joined throughout the night by Diane Sawyer, George Stephanopoulos, and others. ABC News Radio’s coverage, anchored by Aaron Katersky from ABC News headquarters in New York, will be a part of this special digital coverage.

NOTE: Coverage begins at 7 p.m. Eastern and is expected to run until at least 11 p.m. ET.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Tuesday
Jan242012

WATCH LIVE: The State of the Union Address & the GOP Response

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama on Tuesday night will stand before a divided Congress to deliver his third State of the Union address and outline his vision for an “America Built To Last.”

Echoing the themes of a speech he gave in Kansas last month, the president will detail his vision for economic fairness and a return to American values.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels will deliver the Republican response.

Below, find live analysis and commentary from the political teams at ABC News and Yahoo! News.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Thursday
Jan192012

ABC News Exclusive: Gingrich’s Ex-Wife Says He Wanted Open Marriage

ABC News(NEW YORK) -- Newt Gingrich lacks the moral character to serve as president, his second ex-wife Marianne told ABC News, saying his campaign positions on the sanctity of marriage and the importance of family values do not square with what she saw during their 18 years of marriage.

In her first television interview since the 1999 divorce, to be broadcast tonight on ABC’s Nightline, Marianne Gingrich, a self-described conservative Republican, said she is coming forward now so voters can know what she knows about her former husband and Speaker of the House.


Watch a preview of ABC News' exclusive broadcast interview with Marianne Gingrich below, and then catch the full interview tonight on ABC News' Nightline at 11:35 p.m. ET.

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In her most provocative comments, the ex-Mrs. Gingrich said Newt sought an "open marriage" arrangement so he could have a mistress and a wife.

She said when Gingrich admitted to a six-year affair with a Congressional aide, he asked her if she would share him with the other woman, Callista, who is now married to Gingrich.

"And I just stared at him and he said, 'Callista doesn't care what I do,'" Marianne Gingrich told ABC News. "He wanted an open marriage and I refused."

Marianne described her "shock" at Gingrich's behavior, including how she says she learned he conducted his affair with Callista "in my bedroom in our apartment in Washington."

"He always called me at night," she recalled, "and always ended with 'I love you.' Well, she was listening."

All this happened, she said, during the same time Gingrich condemned President Bill Clinton for his lack of moral leadership.

She said Newt moved for the divorce just months after she had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, with her then-husband present.

"He also was advised by the doctor when I was sitting there that I was not to be under stress. He knew," she said.

Gingrich divorced his first wife, Jackie, as she was being treated for cancer. His relationship with Marianne began while he was still married to Jackie but in divorce proceedings, Marianne said.

There was no immediate comment from Gingrich on his ex-wife's allegations. Gingrich has said during the campaign he has "no relationship" with Marianne.

While she had been quoted earlier as saying she could end his career, Marianne Gingrich defended Newt's ethics while he served in Congress and came under several ethics investigations.

"At the time, I believed him to be ethical," she said in the interview.

The former Mrs. Gingrich says Newt began to plan a run for President at the time of the divorce and told her that Callista "was going to help him become President."

In a statement to ABC News provided by the campaign, Gingrich's two daughters from his first marriage said, "The failure of a marriage is a terrible and emotional experience for everyone involved."

The daughters, Kathy Lubbers and Jackie Cushman said they would not say anything negative about Marianne and said their father, "regrets any pain he may have caused in the past to people he loves."

Marianne Gingrich said Newt has never expressed any such regrets or apologized to her.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

Sunday
Jan082012

GOP Debate: Romney Unruffled as Rivals Attack Each Other

Win McNamee/Getty Images(MANCHESTER, N.H.) -- Mitt Romney was unruffled in the New Hampshire Republican debate Saturday night that saw heated exchanges between Ron Paul and his rivals but relatively little criticism leveled against the frontrunner.

Rick Santorum, who is riding high after his number two finish in the Iowa caucus, was one of the few candidates to go aggressively after the former Massachusetts governor, taking on his economic plan and health care record.

The former senator, who has portrayed Romney as a cold, calculating, chief executive and not an inspirational leader, continued that line of attack Saturday night.

"Business experience doesn't necessarily match up with being the commander-in-chief of this country," Santorum said at the debate in Manchester, N.H., sponsored by ABC News, Yahoo! News and WMUR. "The commander-in-chief of this country isn't a CEO."

Romney responded with a veiled jab at the former senator, saying, "I think people who spend their life in Washington don't understand what happens out in the real economy." 

Watch highlights of the ABC News Republican presidential debate:

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"The people in the private sector," Romney continued, "They're not successful because they're managers. They're successful primarily because they are leaders."

Later in the debate, Santorum attacked Romney's use of the word "middle class," suggesting that it only adds to President Obama's and Democrats' line of argument.

"As far as substance, I agree with Speaker [Newt] Gingrich. I don't think Governor Romney's plan is particularly bold, or is particularly focused on where the problems are in this country," Santorum said.

Saying that "there are no classes in America," Santorum took issue with Romney's use of the word middle class.

"We are a country that don't allow for titles. We don't put people in classes. There may be middle income people, but the idea that somehow or another we're going to buy into the class warfare arguments of Barack Obama is something that should not be part of the Republican lexicon. That's their job, divide, separate, put one group against another," he said.

"I'll use the language of bringing people together," he added.

Gingrich, who has seen his ranking in the polls slide rapidly, was asked about Romney's record at Bain Capital but largely left criticism in a scathing TV ad by a super PAC aligned with his campaign to speak for itself.

The pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future recently teased a forthcoming film it produced -- called "King of Bain" – that featured interviews with laid off employees, hammering Romney for turning their lives upside down. The video calls Romney's tenure at Bain "a story of greed."

Gingrich said he hasn't seen the ad but that "people should look at the film and decide."

"I'm not nearly as enamored of a Wall Street model where you can flip companies, you can go in and have leveraged buyouts, you can basically take out all the money, leaving behind the workers," he said, taking a swipe at Romney without saying his name.

Romney defended his record at Bain, including the fact that some of the companies it invested in led to layoffs. "We understand that in the free economy, in the private sector, that sometimes investments don't work and you're not successful," he said. "It always pains you if you have to be in a situation of downsizing a business in order to try and make it more successful, turn it around and try and grow it again."

Romney may be the frontrunner but it was Rep. Ron Paul who was the subject of the testiest exchanges of the night. Paul went aggressively at his rivals, accusing Santorum of corruption and Gingrich of ducking military service.

Paul and Santorum are engaged in a tooth-and-nail battle for the number two position and the two had the feistiest exchanges of the debate.

"To say you're a conservative, I think, is a stretch. But you've convinced a lot of people of it, so somebody has to point out your record," Paul charged, citing a report by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in 2006 that named Santorum one of three "most corrupt" senators.

Paul's charge comes at a time when Santorum is trying to make the case that he is the one true, viable conservative alternative to Romney.

Santorum bashed CREW as a liberal organization and defended his conservative record.

"If you haven't been sued by CREW, you are not a conservative," he responded. "It's a ridiculous charge and you should know better than to cite George Soros-like organizations."

He painted Paul as being far out of the mainstream of the Republican Party: "You vote against everything."

Soon after, Gingrich and Paul clashed in a heated exchange on the question of military service.

"I think people who don't serve when they could and get three or four or even five deferments have no right to send our kids off to war and be even against the wars we have. I'm trying to stop the wars but at least I went when they called me up," he said. 

But Gingrich, who received a draft deferment during the Vietnam War on the basis that he had children and was studying, pushed back heavily at Paul's not-so-veiled jab.

"Dr. Paul has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false. The fact is I never asked for a deferment. I was married with a child. It was never a question," he countered. "I personally resent the kind of comments and aspersions he routinely makes without accurate information and then just slurs people."

"When I was drafted I was married with two kids and I went," Paul responded, to applause.

"I wasn't eligible for the draft. I wasn't eligible for the draft," Gingrich repeated.

On the issue of foreign policy and how they would handle Iraq and Afghanistan, the candidates deviated little from their talking points, except Rick Perry, who said for the first time that he would send troops back to Iraq. Perry was the only other candidate on stage, besides Paul, to serve in the armed forces.

"I would send troops back into Iraq," he said. "The idea that we allow the Iranians to come back into Iraq and take over that country, with all of the treasure, both in blood and money that we have spent in Iraq, because this president wants to kowtow to his liberal leftist base and move out those men and women. ... I think it is a huge error for us." 

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The Texas governor has long criticized Obama for announcing a date for the troop withdrawal but has previously only said that he would consult with commanders on the ground before making troop decisions.

On Iraq, Perry stood out from the rest of the candidates, namely Paul who advocates bringing all troops back home, even from Afghanistan.

They may have stood apart on economic issues, but the candidates were united in opposition when asked about gay marriage, which is legal in New Hampshire and Iowa.

"There's every right for people in this country to form long-term relationships with each other, that doesn't mean they need to call it marriage," said Romney.

"It's a huge jump from being understanding, considerate, concerned [for same-sex couples], which we should be," Gingrich said, "to saying we're therefore going to institute the sacrament of marriage as though it has no basis. The sacrament of marriage is based on a man and a woman, has been for 3,000 years, is at the core of our civilization and is worth protecting and upholding."

"I think protecting and upholding that doesn't mean you need to make life miserable for others," he added.

"I believe the issue of marriage itself is a federal issue," said Santorum, a longtime critic of same-sex marriage. "Marriage is... a foundational institution in our country and we have to have a singular law with respect to that."

Then Gingrich trained fire on the news media for not adequately reporting on recent decisions by Catholic Charities groups to cease adoption services in several states which would have required them to work with same-sex couples.

"You don't hear the opposite question asked: should the Catholic Church be forced to close its adoption services in Massachusetts because it won't accept gay couples?"

"The bigotry question goes both ways. And there's a lot more anti-Christian bigotry today than there is on the other side and none of it gets covered by the media," he said, drawing loud applause.

"People in this room think Speaker Gingrich is right, and I do too," interjected Romney.

During the debate several of the candidates, including Romney and Gingrich, urged party unity, saying they'd support anyone on the stage if he were to become the GOP nominee to challenge Obama. But not Paul, who some speculate could mount a third party run.

When asked about the possibility of making an independent general election bid, Paul insisted he has "no plans to do it" but would not definitively rule it out.

"I don't intend to do it. And somebody pushed me a little bit hard and said why don't you plan to do it? I just -- I don't want to. So I have no intention," he said. "But I don't know why a person can't reserve a judgment and see how things turn out? You know, in many ways I see the other candidates as very honorable people, but I sometimes disagree with their approach to government."

Jon Huntsman, who has focused the bulk of his campaign efforts in New Hampshire, struggled to maintain his ground and came under a late, last-minute surprising attack by the frontrunner himself.

Romney attacked Huntsman's work as ambassador to China under the Obama administration, saying that as president, he wouldn't talk about China.

"I'm going to tell the Chinese, it's time to stop. I'm not going to let you kill American jobs," he said.

Huntsman responded in Chinese, saying, "he doesn't understand the situation."

Romney is well ahead of his rivals in the Granite state, garnering 44 percent of the vote among GOP voters in a WMUR poll released Friday. In South Carolina -- the state next in line for the primary -- the former Massachusetts governor is leading the pack with almost 40 percent of the vote, while the only southerner in the contest, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, has fallen to 5 percent.

Romney is leading well ahead of his rivals in all major national polls, but Santorum is also rising quickly, mostly at the expense of Gingrich. In Gallup's latest tracking poll conducted on Jan. 1-6, 29 percent of GOP voters chose Romney, 17 percent picked Gingrich and 16 percent said they would vote for Santorum. This is one of Romney's largest leads since the poll began.

Watch analysis of the ABC News Republican presidential debate:

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