The Republican presidential debate Saturday broke out into a volley of charges and counter-charges between the candidates, but left front-runner Mitt Romney almost entirely unscathed in the second-to-last forum before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
The debate was an object lesson in the challenges facing Romney’s conservative opponents: much as they need to tear down the former Massachusetts governor, they can’t help squabbling amongst themselves instead.
Indeed, with the exception of some early sniping at Romney’s business record, and a stand-alone riff against Romney from late-surging challenger Rick Santorum, the former Massachusetts governor scarcely drew criticism from the field.
The Romney camp quickly declared victory.
“No one laid a hand on him,” New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Romney supporter, said of her candidate. “There were a couple times during the debate where you thought someone was going to provide a clear contrast or criticize him, and really none of it ever came to fruition.”
Few of the questions at the debate – co-hosted by ABC News, Yahoo! News and New Hampshire’s WMUR station – appeared designed to drive conflict between the candidates or make the candidates sweat. There were more questions than in past debates directed at social issues, as well as soft-focus queries such this one, to Rick Perry: “Do you believe having worn a uniform, being part of a unit, better prepares you for the job of commander-in-chief than those on the stage who haven’t served?”
Romney was put on the defensive early on, batting back attacks on his involvement in laying off workers at companies acquired by Bain Capital, his former firm.
“It always pains you if you have to be in the process of downsizing a business,” said Romney, who added: “This is a free-enterprise system.”
The focus on Bain came amid a flurry of reports that Winning Our Future, a super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich’s campaign, is poised to go up with ads attacking Romney’s time at the firm.
Asked about those ads, Gingrich said that he hadn’t seen them, but felt that the issue was in-bounds.
“I’m very much for free enterprise,” he said. “I’m not nearly as enamored of a Wall Street model where you can flip companies, you can go in and have leveraged buyouts, you can basically take out all the money, leaving behind the workers.”
In the second half of the debate, Santorum – who’d been expected to go on the offensive against Romney – finally got around to making the case for why he, rather than Romney, ought to carry the GOP flag into the fall.
“We’re looking for someone who can win this race, who can win this race on the economy and on the core issues of this – of this election,” Santorum said. “I was not ever for an individual mandate. I wasn’t for a top down, government-run health care system. I wasn’t for the big bank of Wall Street bailout, as Gov. Romney was. And I – and I stood firm on those and worked, actually, in the coal fields, if you will, against this idea that we needed a cap and trade program.”
But Romney responded to Santorum’s critique with the rhetorical equivalent of a shrug, pivoting to discuss his own economic platform.
And for much of the rest of the debate, Romney was allowed to look on as his would-be challengers went at each other.
Santorum and Ron Paul traded blows on federal spending. Perry called Paul a hypocrite. Paul branded Gingrich a draft-dodger.
And that was all just in the first third of the debate.
In perhaps the tartest exchange of the night, Paul dismissed Santorum as a corrupt, “big-government, big-spending” Washington insider who “became a high-powered lobbyist” after leaving office.
Santorum shot back that Paul was “not telling the truth.”
“When I left the United States Senate, I got involved in causes that I believe in,” Santorum said, noting that he’d joined a social conservative group, a hospital board and a coal company. “I don’t know whether you think board of directors are lobbyists. That’s the private-sector experience that I’m sure Mitt would approve of.”
To the corruption charge, Santorum ridiculed the accusation: “The group that called me corrupt was a group called CREW [Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington]. If you haven’t been sued by CREW, you’re not a conservative.”
It wasn’t only Santorum who found himself on the receiving end of a personally charged critique from Paul. Gingrich, too, took heat from the congressman for not having served in the Vietnam war.
Paul described Gingrich earlier this week as a “chickenhawk” and stood by that characterization on the debate stage.
“People who don’t serve when they could and they get three or four, even five, deferments – they have no right to send our kids off to war,” Paul said. “I’m trying to stop the wars, but at least I went when they called me up.”
Gingrich responded to Paul’s charge by saying the Texan “has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false.”
“I never asked for a deferment. I was married with a child,” Gingrich said, pointing out that his father served in Vietnam and he understands what it’s like to “worry about your father getting killed.”
Paul campaign chief Jesse Benton chalked up the intra-conservative fighting to the fact that Romney has a “ceiling,” and the other candidates want to be the last man standing on the anti-establishment side of the race.
“The battle right now is to be the anti-Romney,” Benton said. “He’s the moderate and he’s staked out that position. We’re trying to establish ourselves as the real freedom, liberty, limited-government conservative candidate to oppose Mitt Romney.”
Two of Romney’s challengers seemed to work especially hard to stay positive: Jon Huntsman and Perry.
With the exception of his shot at Paul, Perry trained his attention on delivering his “outsider” message, speaking more steadily and with greater confidence than in previous candidate forums.
The governor, typically eager to mix it up with other candidates on the stage, took Saturday night as an opportunity mostly to rise above the fray – for as much good as it might do him at this stage in the race.
“I I happen to think that I’m the only outsider, with the possible exception of Jon Huntsman, who has not been part of the problem in Washington D.C.,” Perry said in an answer criticizing the other candidates for bickering.
Huntsman, too, showed new self-assurance here at St. Anselm College, emphasizing his diplomatic experience and seeking in his own way to claim the role of Washington outsider.
“We’ve got to find somebody who can reform Congress and do what needs to be done,” Huntsman said.
Huntsman passed on many openings to take swings at his opponents, saying the firefights amounted to “a lot of insider gobbledygook.”
In the spin room after the debate, Huntsman strategist John Weaver pointed to a jab Romney directed at his candidate – noting Huntsman’s service in the Obama administration – as a sign of concern on Romney’s part.
“Here’s a guy who usually tries to float above. They’re worried about their turnout here, quite frankly. They’ve taken the state for granted. He’s polling in the high 40s. Anything below that is going to be – could be seen as a loss,” Weaver said. “I think they’re worried about our ground game. We’ll see what happens on Tuesday.”
To the extent that the debate produced any memorable moments, they were likely two instances of self-inflicted political damage – one from Huntsman and one from Gingrich.
For Huntsman, that moment came as he disagreed with Romney on China policy, and abruptly broke into a stream of Mandarin.
Gingrich, meanwhile, ended the night on a false note as he answered a question about what he’d be doing tonight if he wasn’t on the debate stage.
Gingrich said he’d be watching the championship basketball game – before correcting himself: “Football!”