It was a night of strategic alliances, as leading Republican and Democratic candidates aimed to solidify their positions coming out of the Iowa caucuses, in the last presidential debates before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary at St. Anselm's College in Manchester, N.H., on Saturday evening.
Candidates teamed up against the more vulnerable among them: former Gov. Mitt Romney, R-Mass. and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. The back-to-back forums by the Republicans and Democrats were dominated by personal jibes and the word "change," which has become ubiquitous in the 2008 race.
Romney, who expected a win in Iowa and placed second behind former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., is six points behind Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in New Hampshire, according to a recent CNN/WMUR/UNH poll. Romney's loss in Iowa means that he needs a win in New Hampshire to remain viable for the Republication nomination. McCain's third-place tie with Former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn. in Iowa suggests he is facing the same predicament.
With Romney and McCain recognizing that New Hampshire is "do or die" for their candidates, the debate dialogue between the two politicians did not remain cordial for long.
Romney criticized McCain's plan for immigration reform as tantamount to amnesty for illegal immigrants. The Republican conservative base has consistently criticized McCain's plan for not providing adequate penalties to those who enter the United States illegally.
McCain responded by mocking the extent to which Romney's position on some issues, like abortion rights, has changed since his time as governor of Massachusetts.
"I just wanted to say to Governor Romney, we disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree that you are the candidate of change," McCain said.
Clarifying his position on immigration, McCain ridiculed Romney's use of negative ads.
"It's not amnesty, and for you to describe it as you do in the attack ads, my friend, you can spend your whole, your whole fortune on these attack ads, but it still won't be true," McCain said.
Romney also traded cutting remarks with Thompson over healthcare.
"It is helpful if you talk about your policies and I talk about mine," Romney said to Thompson.
During the Democratic debate, Clinton was similarly attacked by her opponents.
Like Romney, Clinton, the former front-runner, was routed in Iowa, finishing third behind Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. The latest CNN/WMUR/UNH poll shows Clinton polling at 29 percent with Obama at 39 percent in New Hampshire.
Obama and Edwards appeared to ally themselves against Clinton, characterizing her as the status quo candidate.
Debating topics of nuclear terrorism, Iraq and healthcare, several exchanges between Clinton and Obama became bitter.
"You know, Senator Obama has been -- as the Associated Press described it -- he could have a pretty good debate with himself, because four years ago, he was for single-payer healthcare," Clinton said. "Then he moved to a rejection of that, a more incremental approach. Then he was for universal healthcare. Then he proposed a healthcare plan that doesn't cover everybody."
Obama's response was curt: "Well, you know, I think the Associated Press was quoting some of your folks, Hillary."
Later, the moderator of the ABC, WMUR-TV and Facebook sponsored debate, Charles Gibson, questioned Clinton about her low likability ratings among voters.
"Well, that hurts my feelings, but I'll try to go on," Clinton said to laughter. "[Obama's] very likeable, I agree with that. But I don't think I'm that bad."
"You're likeable enough," Obama said.
Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., who largely stayed above the fray, calle attention to the animosity of the debate.
"I've been in hostage negotiations that are a lot more civil than this," he said.
© 2008 The Dartmouth via U-WIRE