MANCHESTER, NH—Nothing happened at Saturday night’s debate to touch Mitt Romney or shake his seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls here.
You might have thought that Romney’s rivals would seize one of the last clear chances to take him down. Instead, they went after each other. If his opponents had gotten together to concoct a plan to make Romney look good, they couldn’t have done much better.
“I don’t want to be critical of the people on this stage,” Romney said early on. If so, he was the only one. As the debate got underway, Romney’s rivals, invited by the moderators to repeat the nasty comments they had made about their opponents, happily obliged.
Asked whether his dismissive comments about not needing a new manager in Washington were aimed at Romney, Rick Santorum said, “of course.” Newt Gingrich criticized Romney’s record at Bain Capital—citing, of all places not likely to convince Republican voters, The New York Times.“I’m not surprised to have “The New York Times” try and put free enterprise on trial,” Romney responded. “.I’m not surprised to have the Obama administration do that, either. It’s a little surprising from my colleagues on this stage.”
Uh, maybe—but what was really surprising was the way Romney’s rivals turned their fire on each other and left Romney out of it—allowing him to appear comfortably, regally above the fray. The camera repeatedly showed Romney, standing with his hands in his pockets and looking bemused at the squabbling taking place around him.
Ron Paul reaffirmed his assertion that Santorum was corrupt and hypocritical. Rick Perry fired back at Paul: “Here’s what frustrates me, is that you go get the earmarks and then you vote against the bill? Now, I don’t know what they call that in other places, but, Congressman Paul, in Texas, we call that hypocrisy.”
Then Paul turned on Gingrich and stood by his description of Gingrich as a “chicken hawk” who had avoided the draft. Gingrich jabbed back. “Dr. Paul has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false,” he said.
It took until more than halfway through the debate for his rivals to direct some mild jabs at Romney. His economic plan was not bold enough for Santorum’s liking. Jon Huntsman said it was “nonsense to think you can slap a tariff on China the first day that you’re in office, as Governor Romney would like to do.”
Romney threw his only punch of the night. “I’m sorry, Governor, you were, the last two years, implementing the policies of this administration in Chi na. The rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president from being put forward.”
This led to the oddest moment of this—or maybe any—presidential debate, with Huntsman trotting out his Mandarin language skills. “I think it’s important to note, as they would say in China…,” Huntsman said.
A weird, unenlightening evening, with the possible exception of Romney’s rather confused admission—at least I understood him to admit this, when he said he did not believe that the constitution creates a right to privacy—that he did not agree with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut that states cannot make contraceptives illegal. “Has the Supreme Court — has the Supreme Court decided that states do not have the right to provide contraception?” Romney asked ABC’s George Stephanopolous. Excuse me, did this man not go to Harvard Law School?
There’s another debate Sunday morning. Perhaps that will be more of a game changer. Because this one was a game ratifier—and this is a game Romney is winning.