Fact-checking the New Hampshire debates
The candidates debate in New Hampshire. The candidates debate in New Hampshire.

The candidates debate in New Hampshire.

Becky Bowers
By Becky Bowers January 7, 2012

Updated Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012, at 5:30 p.m.

In a busy weekend before Tuesday's Jan. 10, 2012, New Hampshire primary, Republican candidates argued for the right to run against President Barack Obama in back-to-back televised debates.

But they didn't always do it truthfully. 

As we cranked up the Truth-O-Meter, Texas Gov. Rick Perry went so far as to call the president a socialist.

That had us smelling smoke.

Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman and Perry met Saturday night in a debate sponsored by ABC News/WMUR-TV at St. Anselm College, just outside of Manchester, then again — less than 12 hours later — on Sunday morning in an NBC News-Facebook debate in Concord.

They challenged the truth in claims about Obama, the economy and health care, while Gingrich earned our highest ruling of the weekend — Mostly True — in a claim about the EPA.

The president

Romney ignored trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama when he said at Saturday night's debate the president has opened up no new trade relationships with other nations.

"European nations and China over the last three years have opened up 44 different trade relationships with various nations in the world," he said. "This president has opened up none."

We rated his claim False.

On Sunday morning, Huntsman said Obama threw a bipartisan deficit reduction proposal "in the garbage can."

The president didn't exactly embrace the 2010 proposal, which emerged from a presidential commission chaired by former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former Democratic White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles. But his 2011 budget did reflect several of the plan's many ideas. We rated Huntsman's claim False.

Perry had the most ridiculous distortion of the weekend when he declared Obama "is a socialist."

However Perry might feel about the president's policies, they don't qualify as evidence of  "governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods," economists told us.

We rated the governor's claim Pants on Fire.

The economy

Saturday night, Huntsman said, "I put bold proposals forward. I delivered a flat tax for my state. I took my state to No. 1 in job creation, with all due respect to what Rick Perry has said about Texas, we did a little bit better."

We've rated both claims before. Huntsman didn’t create a pure flat tax in Utah, but he did create a flatter one. As for jobs, the Utah economy did well, but it did not outpace Texas in job creation using the yardstick most economists — and the Bureau of Labor Statistics itself — use. We also don’t think it’s valid for Huntsman to claim as much credit as he does for himself and his tax changes for the jobs numbers. We rated the statement Half True.

Romney used one of his favorite attacks to invoke the specter of socialism.

"We're only inches away from no longer being a free economy," he said.

It’s true that the government’s footprint on spending has grown over the past few years, due in large part to the recession. But while the statistics show that the government continues to have a large influence on the economy, there is little indication that the government’s role has risen dramatically enough over the past few years to threaten the kind of free market that the United States has operated under in recent decades. And international comparisons show that the country ranks low in both total tax burden and high in economic freedom. In June and August, we found this claim to merit a Pants on Fire.

Now Romney's achieved a PolitiFact hat trick.

Health care

In Sunday morning's debate, Romney indulged in another of his favorite talking points, about the need to shrink the federal government. Where would he start? With the national health reform plan Obama signed in 2010.

"The No. 1 to cut is Obamacare. That saves $95 billion a year," Romney said in the Concord debate.

That savings figure is one he has cited before, and we found it to be incorrect.  Yes, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported repealing the law would prevent $95 billion in spending in 2016. But the law had many moving parts — some of which were revenue sources to pay for the spending. When the CBO looked at the first 10 years without the law, from 2012 to 2021, it found repealing it added $210 billion to the deficit. We rated Romney's statement False.

Santorum also repeated a misleading claim on Sunday, that a plan to transform Medicare into a premium support program would provide "pretty much" the same coverage that members of Congress receive. The proposal, by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would require private insurers to meet standards set by the same federal office that sets standards for congressional plans. Medicare beneficiaries would be able to select from different insurance options, and the government would pay part of their premiums, as it does for members of Congress.

But premium support under Ryan's plan wouldn't keep pace with rising medical costs the way Congress' plan does. Meanwhile, seniors make less income to pay for uncovered costs. We rated Santorum's statement Mostly False.

Federal regulation

Excessive government regulation commanded a good portion of Sunday morning's debate. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, asked about his idea to replace the Environmental Protection Agency, said the agency is "increasingly radical," and "increasingly imperious."

"The city of Nashua recently had a dump that was cited by EPA," he said. "They went down to find out, what was it being cited for? And they told them, frankly, 'We don't know. We can't find the records that lead to this citation, and we're not exactly sure what it referenced. But it must be bad or we wouldn't have sent it out.'"

Nashua Telegraph reporter Albert McKeon, who reported on the city's EPA problem last month, said Gingrich's largely got it right. While the city wasn't cited, it was placed on a watch list for an outdated  action with only vague explanation. We rated his claim Mostly True.

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Fact-checking the New Hampshire debates