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Republicans Spar Before New Hampshire Primary

Five Republican presidential candidates squared off for their last debate before New Hampshire voters go to the polls on Tuesday.

At the Fox News forum Sunday night, the state's former front-runner, Mitt Romney, fought back against his two most threatening rivals — John McCain and Mike Huckabee.

The Republicans sparred on taxes, spending and — a buzzword of this year's campaign — change.

Romney Attacks Rivals

Romney was on the offensive Sunday night after being pounded by his rivals for being a flip-flopper in a debate on Saturday night. He attacked both McCain and Huckabee on a subject close to the hearts of the state's Republicans — taxes.

Romney pointed out that McCain was one of two Republican senators who had voted against the Bush tax cuts.

But McCain responded by saying that he has done other things to save U.S. taxpayers' money.

"Look, ask Jack Abramoff, who's in prison today — a guy who was a corrupt lobbyist — and his friends if I haven't cut spending," McCain said. "Ask the Air Force and Boeing, where I saved $2 billion ... by fighting against a bogus Air Force tanker deal. I have a record of saving billions for the American taxpayers."

McCain is leading Romney in the polls in New Hampshire. If McCain wins the New Hampshire primary, Romney will have been twice denied early state victories.

The man who beat Romney in Iowa, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, is a distant third in the New Hampshire polls after a solid win in the Iowa caucuses. Romney also sparred with Huckabee on taxes.

Populist Message

Huckabee's rise has sent shudders through the Republican Party establishment. His anti-Wall Street populism sometimes makes him sound like a Republican class warrior. On the campaign trail, he often says people would rather elect someone who reminds them of the guy they work with — not the guy who laid them off.

"When people sit around their dinner tables at night, they feel the effect of $3-a-gallon gasoline. They feel the effect of double digit inflation on their health care costs. They're working two jobs, and they're still not getting a great deal ahead from where they were the year before," Huckabee said. "If that's populism, then I'm guilty, because I think if you understand the struggle of a lot of American families, our party had better wake up to that. If we don't, we're going to lose."

Since Huckabee's win in Iowa last week, Romney has retooled his message. He says voters want change, and that he is an outsider who can shake things up in Washington, D.C. He says McCain has been in Washington too long.

"Washington needs fundamental top-to-bottom change," Romney says. "Just sending the same people to Washington, but in different chairs, is not going to result in a different outcome."

It's unclear whether the Washington insider label will stick to the maverick McCain, who has been a thorn in the side of the Republican establishment for years.

"I know that I have been an agent of change," McCain says. "I'm proud to have been one of those who played a key role in bringing about one of the most important changes in recent years and that was the change in strategy from a failing strategy in Iraq pursued by Secretary Rumsfeld, which was needlessly causing the sacrifice of our most precious American treasure," McCain says. "I don't know of a better change than saving American lives."

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani also participated in the debate. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas were excluded because Fox invited only candidates who had reached double digits in national polls.

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Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.