Manchester, NH—Ron Paul reaffirmed his view that Newt Gingrich is a chickenhawk.
Rick Santorum called Ron Paul a liar.
Jon Huntsman explained to his fellow contenders that his marriage was not threatened by civil unions.
Gingrich said Barack Obama was “sincere” in his determination to create “a radical European socialist model” of governance.
Rick Perry proposed reinvading Iraq. Seriously.
Perry said that if he wasn’t debating, he’d be at the shooting range. Most of the rest of the candidates said they would be watching football—except for Paul, who said he’d be reading an economics text. Seriously.
Then the six men who would be president sent the better part of Saturday night’s pre–New Hampshire primary debate arguing about contraception.
What was supposed to be definitional debate was dragged in so many strange directions by distracted candidates and disengaged moderators that the ABC News/WMUR-TV debate turned into one of the more unfocused and ultimately uninspiring debates of the campaign season. So it should come as no surprise that the winner was the uninspired—and not particularly popular—candidate who was supposed to take all the hits but instead finished unscathed, Mitt Romney.
“It was almost as if [the other candidates] were not aware that Mitt Romney is the front-runner,” observed ABC’s Jake Tapper, in what may well be the understatement of the night.
By Monday morning, trackling polls suggested that Romney was still almost 20 points ahead of his cloest rival, Paul, with Gingrich and Santorum struggling for third. And former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer -- "Catch the Roementum! -- pulling ahead of Perry.
Gingrich, well aware that his debate performances were in sufficient, shifted into harshest attack mode Monday, accusing Romney of "looting" American companies when the millionaire businessman headed Bain Capital. There were reports that a Gingrich-aligned Super PAC would spend as much as $3.4 million to deliver the "Romney's a looter" message in South Carolina before that state's January 21 primary.
That's a hard hit -- much harder than any Gingrich of the other contenders delivered at the Saturday and Sunday debate.
Instead of taking Romney down a few pegs on the eve of a primary that all the polls suggest the narrow winner of last Tuesday Iowa caucuses is likely to win with ease, the other candidates pretty much gave the best-financed and best-organized contender a pass. Indeed, even when his competitors tried to damage Romney, it was with ineffectual jibes—like Santorum’s suggestion that the former governor and organizer of the Olympics is too much of a manager.
The only real dust-up between Romney and one of his challengers was a late-in-the-debate clash with Huntsman.
Romney won that one. Big time.
Huntsman scored Romney for some protectionist statements regarding China.
Romney shot back that, while he and the other candidates on the stage were fighting the Obama administration’s policies in recent years, Huntsman was “implementing” them as the US ambassador to China.
Huntsman responded by speaking Chinese.
Huntsman obviously recognized that he blew it. He came out swinging at NBC’s Sunday morning debate. “I was criticized last night by Governor Romney for putting my country first,” he announced. Romney’s response was unimpressive: the person running against President Obama probably shouldn’t be someone who worked for President Obama. The Huntsman campaign later released a statement that read: “The fundamental difference in this campaign is Jon Huntsman puts country first, Mitt Romney puts politics first. Governor Romney’s evolution as a candidate is attributable to his desire to do whatever it takes to win an election and illustrates the cynical nature of politics.”
That was an appeal to New Hampshire independents, who can vote in Tuesday’s primary. But it won’t hurt Romney with Republicans in New Hampshire, or in later primary states where he must appeal to conservatives who may distrust him but who absolutely despise Obama.
Nor was Romney hurt much by Newt Gingrich’s Sunday-morning jab about the former Massachusetts governor hogging microphone time: “The red light doesn’t mean anything to you because you’re the front-runner.”
Romney walked away from Saturday night’s debate stronger than he went in. And, though he took a few more hits Sunday morning, he lost little in the way of momentum.
When all was said and done, Romney’s front-runner status was reinforced.
He even sounded like a front-runner.
As Saturday night’s debate wrestled with a question about federal regulation of birth control, Romney wisely gave up and turned to Paul, the Texas congressman who has positioned himself as the most consistent defender of the Constitution in Washington.
“You can ask your constitutionalist here,” said Romney. “I don’t know whether a state has a right to ban contraception. No state wants to.… it’s kind of a silly thing, I think.”
Paul assured Romney and the rest that the Fourth Amendment protects privacy.
But Romney was right. The whole debate was “kind of a silly thing.”
And he walked away looking kind of like the likely nominee of the Republican Party.