ABC Sat. primary debates like 'hostage negotiations'

Candidates sparred in primetime

It's getting ugly up here.

With less than three days before Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, the nine remaining major candidates sparred and at times needled each other in Saturday night's dual debates carried during primetime by ABC News.

With the possibility that even fewer will leave the Granite State viable, the candidates fought for their political lives — and many times, just fought.

"I've been in hostage negotiations that are a lot more civil than this," joked Bill Richardson as Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and new front-runner Barack Obama fought.

Clinton, humbled by her third-place finish in Iowa, found herself on the defensive under the combined forces of Obama and Edwards, who positioned themselves as agents of change and painted Clinton as the same old, same old.

"I didn't hear these kind of attacks from Sen. Clinton when she was ahead," Edwards said. "Now that she's not, we hear them."

Change was the word of the day on both sides, more so than such issues as the Iraq surge, health care or amnesty for illegal immigrants. Continuing a theme on the campaign trail that resonated in Iowa last week and probably will in New Hampshire this week, candidates of both parties tried to paint themselves as the representatives of true change.

Not that it was calmer on the Republican side, where an hour earlier the five remaining candidates had trouble getting a word in edgewise and sometimes devolved into a shouting match. John McCain, who is experiencing a revival to lead in the opinion polls here, seemed to enjoy every moment. He, and Iowa winner Mike Huckabee, tormented early and often Mitt Romney about his shifts in position from his time in Massachusetts until now.

"We disagree on a lot of issues but I agree you are a candidate of change," McCain told Romney.

Huckabee had piled on earlier when Romney chided: "Don't try to characterize my position."

"Which one," Huckabee shot back.

ABC News was the first broadcast network this election season to provide a primetime platform for the candidates, albeit a usually low-rated Saturday night. But politics faced off against two NFL wildcard games, and it doesn't take a political scientist to figure out that the debates would be trounced by football.

It was that way in and out of the debate hall, too. Some behind-the-scenes staffers tuned a TV screen in the spin room to the Washington Redskins playoff game before the debate began. ABC News anchor Charles Gibson asked Obama if he had anything to say about what the GOP candidates had to say about him an hour earlier.

"I have to admit that I was going back and forth between the Republicans and football," Obama said to laughter in the debate hall and the press room.

Gibson, whose moderating of the debates earned him praise among the press corps, provided the most surreal moment as the ABC newsman brought the Democrats on stage as the Republicans concluded their free-for-all.

"This is a unique opportunity we have," Gibson said.

And the GOP candidates, who bashed Clinton and Obama only a few minutes earlier, played nice with their rivals. McCain and Edwards hugged; Paul and Obama laughed and spoke. The oddest couple, however, was two New Yorkers, Clinton and Rudy Giuliani, who spoke pleasantly.

"That's hilarious," said one journalist watching the spectacle from the press room.