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December 23. 2011 3:27PM

Gingrich, Romney commit to two key pre-primary debates on Jan. 7 and 8

MANCHESTER - Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, who have been attracting much of the attention in the Republican presidential race in recent weeks, have committed to appear in back-to-back New Hampshire debates the weekend preceding the Jan. 10 first-in-the-nation primary.

Both said they will appear in the NBC News-Facebook “Meet the Press” Debate, in partnership with the New Hampshire Union Leader, on Sunday, Jan. 8, at 9 a.m.

“And we fully expect all other qualifying candidates to participate as well,” said NBC spokeswoman Erika Masonhall.

NBC said the 90-minute debate, moderated by “Meet the Press” host David Gregory, will air locally and regionally on NBC affiliate WHDH (Channel 7 in Boston), WCSH (Channel 6 Portland) and New England Cable News (NECN). It will air nationally on MSNBC and will stream live on Facebook.com and NBCPolitics.com.

The debate will be held in the Chubb Theatre at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord.

According to NBC, the first 60 minutes will air nationally on the NBC network in the “Meet the Press” time slot, with the final 30 minutes offered as optional to affiliates.

Masonhall said, “The NBC News-Facebook debate will build on the great history of ‘Meet the Press' debates by combining the reach of America's number one news network with the world's largest social platform _ and the Union Leader, a local institution _ to present a forum for the candidates to reach voters in ways never before possible.”

Romney and Gingrich will also appear in a debate on Saturday, Jan. 7 from 9 to 11 p.m., sponsored by the ABC television network, Yahoo! and local ABC affiliate, WMUR. The venue will be Saint Anselm College.

WMUR reported Friday that in addition to Romney and Gingrich, also committing to its debate have been candidates Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann.

Romney told reporters Friday he “will be at both debates in New Hampshire that have been proposed.”

His campaign's spokesman, Ryan Williams, added that the former Massachusetts governor “looks forward to a spirited conversation about the challenges facing our country and a discussion about his plans to create jobs and turn around our struggling economy.”

Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond confirmed that the former U.S. House speaker has committed to both debates, and said, “The closing argument will be critical for undecided New Hampshire voters to determine their support.

“The candidate who makes the best jobs and growth argument at the Union Leader debate is the candidate that will close the primary with momentum,” Hammond said.

University of New Hampshire associate political science professor Andrew Smith said the debates “will be the two most important to date. More New Hampshire voters will be watching than watched the earlier debates and they will be finally in the mood to make up their minds.”

Republican strategist Michael Dennehy said the entire 2012 campaign has been unique in several ways, which, he said, will leave “more truly undecided voters at the end of the primary campaign than we have ever seen before.

“As a result,” Dennehy said, “these last debates will prove to be critical as voters make their final decision. Finally, it is likely that the dynamics of the race will change after the Iowa caucus, which gives even more weight to these final debates.

“Voters have become accustomed to debates in the final weekend so they can get the last bit of information they need to decide, Dennehy said.

They NBC and ABC debates are the only such events scheduled between the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.


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