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FactCheck.org's guide to the New Hampshire debates

Busy weekend for Republican Presidential candidates leading up to N.H. primary

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Signs from various candidates are seen planted on a grass covered median in Manchester, N.H.

Matt Rourke/AP

The remaining Republican presidential candidates meet Jan. 7 for a prime-time ABC News/Yahoo!/WMUR-TV debate at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. Less than 12 hours later, they meet again for an NBC News/Facebook debate on “Meet the Press.”

Here are some possible lines of attack to expect, based on what the candidates, their campaigns and their surrogates have been saying lately.

‘Timid vs. Bold’

A major storyline heading into New Hampshire has been former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s stepped-up attacks on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Gingrich took out a full-page newspaper ad in New Hampshire, criticizing Romney as a “timid Massachusetts moderate,” and describing himself as a “bold Reagan conservative.” He also has a TV ad in New Hampshire called “Timid vs. Bold.” Upon arriving in New Hampshire, Gingrich said: “The contrast will be very wide and that will be a key part of what we describe going forward.” It’s likely that we’ll hear a lot from both candidates about their conservative credentials.

We found little to quibble with in the print ad (other than the claim that Romney “expanded abortion services in Massachusetts,” which we will deal with in the next section). There are some places, however, where the print ad could use some context. It’s true, for example, that Romney said he did not want to “return to Reagan-Bush,” as the ad says, but that was during the 1994 Senate campaign. The TV ad exaggerates when talking about Romney’s economic plan. It’s true that the Wall Street Journal called Romney’s economic plan “surprisingly timid,” but the ad goes too far when it says “parts of it [are] virtually identical to Obama’s failed policy.” The ad cites a Forbes editorial, which compared one part of Romney’s plan — not “parts of it” — to Obama’s policies. The part? Romney’s “support for a weak dollar policy.” Specifically, Forbes opposes Romney’s promise to sanction China for unfair trade practices, a move that Forbes says will weaken the U.S. dollar.

As for Gingrich’s conservative credentials, we have written more than once that he has padded his resume by claiming he helped balance the federal budget four consecutive years — even though he was in office for only two of those budget years.

Likewise, Romney, on occasion, has exaggerated his conservative credentials. On the day after narrowly winning in Iowa, Romney appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and was asked how he can gain greater support from conservative voters. Romney ticked off a litany of accomplishments as governor, including boasting that he “made sure that we had our state police enforce immigration laws.” Romney’s referring to an agreement he signed with the federal government granting Massachusetts state police the power to make arrests on immigration charges. But his order never took effect. It came in the closing days of his administration and was rescinded by his successor, as we noted more than once in 2007.

Abortion

Gingrich’s sharpest attacks on Romney of late have come on abortion. The newspaper admentioned above said Romney “expanded abortion services in Massachusetts,” and Gingrich claimed at a recent campaign event that “RomneyCare … included state-funded abortions.” It’s true that abortions are covered under the subsidized insurance product called “Commonwealth Care,” but it wasn’t Romney’s doing. In fact, abortion was not mentioned at all in the health care legislation signed by then-Gov. Romney in 2006. Rather, as we explained when Sen. John McCain raised the issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, the law left decisions about what should be covered to an independent body, the Commonwealth Connector. It was that body, not Romney, which ruled that abortions would be covered.

In truth, the state had little choice but to cover abortions. The state Supreme Court had ruled in 1981 that the Massachusetts Constitution required payments for medically necessary abortions as a “fundamental right” afforded to Medicaid-eligible women. It restated in a 1997 decision that the state must pay for medically necessary abortions if it pays for all other medically necessary procedures including services in connection with childbirth.

It is possible to argue (and some have done so) that Romney could have put up a fight to limit abortion coverage in the law, or that the Commonwealth Connector decided to cover more than is “medically necessary.” According to statistics compiled by the nonpartisan Guttmacher Institute, the number and rate of abortions declined after the health care overhaul in Massachusetts in 2006. The number of abortions went from 27,270 in 2005; to 25,790 in 2007; and to 24,900 in 2008 (the most recent data available). The rate of abortions — the number of abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age (between 15 and 44) — also dropped, from 19.9 in 2005 to 18.3 in 2008. That’s an 8 percent drop. Massachusetts actually bucked the national trend, which saw the abortion rate rise by 1 percent between 2005 and 2008.

Gingrich also claimed that Planned Parenthood was “specifically designated … as a part of RomneyCare.” But “part of” is an overly broad description that may suggest a bigger role for Planned Parenthood than is actually in the law. The law established a 14-member MassHealth Payment Policy Advisory Board. The board is charged with reviewing and evaluating health care rates, and the law states that one of its members is to be appointed by the state’s Planned Parenthood office. During the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, candidate Fred Thompson noted that Romney used his line-item veto authority to strike eight sections of the bill, but not the terms guaranteeing Planned Parenthood representation on the board.

Newt Gingrich’s Baggage

Gingrich’s laser-like focus on Romney is in retaliation for ads attacking him in Iowa by Restore Our Future, a “super PAC” formed by Romney supporters. The former House speaker has bitterly complained that Restore Our Future is lying about his record in print and TV ads, including a TV ad called “Baggage.” We found that some of the group’s claims about Gingrich were indeed false or misleading. But several were right on target. For example, Gingrich was reprimanded by the House for violating ethics rules and “teamed up with Nancy Pelosi on global warming.” On the other hand, Gingrich did not earn “$30,000 an hour” as a consultant to Freddie Mac. His consulting firm earned $25,000 to $30,000 a month from the federally sponsored mortgage agency.

‘RomneyCare’ vs. ‘ObamaCare’

Gingrich isn’t the only one going after Romney, who is comfortably ahead in the New Hampshire polls. Rick Santorum, who nearly beat Romney in Iowa, said on Jan. 3 that Republicans cannot nominate Romney because he is “basically in the same place as Obama on government-run health care.” The Massachusetts health care law Romney signed as governor is a frequent debate topic, as is the federal law signed by Obama.

Santorum is wrong to call the federal law “government-run health care,” as we have frequently pointed out. It’s true that the law expands Medicaid, but it also builds on the country’s private insurance system — creating more business, in fact, for those companies by mandating that individuals obtain insurance coverage. But Santorum is right that there are basic similarities between the federal and Massachusetts laws, despite what Romney claims.

In an attempt to distinguish his plan from Obama’s, Romney has falsely claimed the Massachusetts law affected only 8 percent of state residents (the uninsured), while the federal law will affect “100 percent of the people.” There are differences, but as we’ve said before, both share key components: an individual mandate, subsidies for low-income residents, a Medicaid expansion, a health insurance exchange and employer requirements.

Perry, Santorum on Earmarks

On the stump, and in radio and Web ads, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been criticizing Santorum for his past support of earmarks, including the most infamous of them all, the so-called Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska. It’s true that Santorum has requested earmarks, has voted for numerous bills that contained them and has repeatedly defended the practice. Santorum has taken credit for helping secure money to build an intermodal center at the Philadelphia Zoo — one of the projects cited in the ad. (The former Pennsylvania senator now says the practice of earmarks has been abused and should be suspended.)

But the ads and Perry went too far with suggestions that Santorum voted specifically and directly for a teapot museum in North Carolina; $50 million for an indoor rain forest in Iowa; and $597,000 for the Montana Sheep Institute. In fact, all of those earmarks were attached to much larger spending bills that easily passed the Senate — a point we made in 2006, when the conservative Club for Growth attacked then-Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island on some of the same projects. None of them was requested by Santorum, except the one to build a transportation center to alleviate visitor congestion at the zoo. The ad also says Santorum “personally demanded more than $1 billion of earmarks in his 16 years in Congress,” but that is largely speculative. We don’t know for sure, because laws requiring disclosure of earmark sponsors did not kick in until 2007, after Santorum had left office.

Santorum has less cover with regard to support for the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska. Santorum not only voted for a massive transportation spending bill that included the project, but he also votedagainst an amendment proposed by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn to specifically defund the Bridge to Nowhere (and another Alaska bridge) and redirect the funding to rebuild the Interstate 10 bridgethat was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.

If Perry raises the earmark issue, expect Santorum to counter — as he has several times in interviews this week — that while Perry was governor, Texas hired lobbyists to bring back earmarks to the Lone Star State. On Fox News Jan. 2, Perry defended that, saying: “Well, my point is that’s our tax dollars that went up there, and for us not to try to get that money back in the state of Texas would have — now, that would have been irresponsible.”

Romney on Job Creation

Romney frequently boasts of creating jobs in the private sector and as governor. Recently, Romney has begun claiming — without sufficient proof — that he helped create more than 100,000 net jobs while working at Bain Capital, an investment firm he co-founded. As we have reported, the Romney campaign provided us with job figures for three companies, but no information on job losses at other companies that suffered layoffs, and even bankruptcies, after Bain took them over. In addition, it’s not clear how much credit Bain and Romney should receive for creating jobs at companies, such as Staples, that had multiple investors.

Romney has also claimed that he created more jobs as governor than Obama has created as president. That’s misleading. Again, as we reported, he was governor at a time of economic improvement and Massachusetts did not fare well compared to other states. Massachusetts ranked 47th in job growth over the length of Romney’s term.

Ron Paul’s Foreign Policy

Gingrich has called Rep. Ron Paul’s foreign policy views “stunningly dangerous,” and said he’ll press Paul in the next debate on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Paul has minimized Iran as a nuclear threat. At an Iowa debate in August, the Texas congressman said the CIA told him there is “no evidence” Iran is “working on” a nuclear weapon. But, as we reported, the International Atomic Energy Agency said there are “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear program. On Jan. 1, Paul claimed the IAEA “did not find any evidence” that Iran is “on the verge of a [nuclear] weapon.” However, the IAEA says Iran has carried out activities “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

Mitt Romney’s Flip-Flops

Our Destiny PAC, a political action committee supporting Jon Huntsman, is running a TV ad calling Romney a “chameleon.” The ad doesn’t offer any specifics, but Romney is often attacked for flip-flopping on major issues, including abortion. For instance, we researched 15 issues raised in a Democratic National Committee Web video and found four Romney flip-flops (on an assault weapons ban, tax pledge, abortion and Reaganomics), one flip-flop-flip (climate change), one half-flip (support for Ohio’s law on collective bargaining). There were nine times when the DNC wrongly accused Romney of flip-flopping.

– Eugene Kiely and Robert Farley