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Posted at 11:43 PM ET, 01/08/2012

N.H. debates after-action report: who’s got game?

Republican presidential candidates (L-R) former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, participate in a Republican presidential candidates debate in Concord, New Hampshire, January 8, 2012. (SHANNON STAPLETON - REUTERS)
Welcome back to the broadcast here at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. We’ve got just a little over a minute left in the contest, and something unexpected just happened. Let’s go to the videotape.

It’s a jump ball situation, and George Stephanopoulos of ABC tosses the ball into the air: “If you weren’t here running for president … what would you be doing on a Saturday night?”

Rick Perry on the fast break: “I’d probably be at the shooting range.” (That brings laughter from the audience and a quip from Rick Santorum: “Instead of being shot at.”)

Newt Gingrich with the rebound: “I’d be watching the college championship basketball game.”

Santorum on the steal: “Football game.”

Santorum drive to the basket: “I’d be doing the same thing with my family. We’d be huddled around, and we’d be watching the championship game.”

Mitt Romney on the boards: “I’m afraid it’s football. I love it.”

Oh! Oh! The ball goes out of bounds.

Turns out there was no college football (or basketball) championship being played on Saturday night. As L.S.U. head football coach Les Miles and Alabama head coach Nick Saban can tell you, the BCS championship game is being played Monday night. (As for college basketball, March Madness can extend into April, but it is highly unlikely for January.)

Does it really matter if the candidates know when the college football championship game will be played? Perhaps not, and they have been pretty busy lately. But that moment did reveal something about the nature of the candidates and the debate process, too.

Perry’s answer that he would be at the shooting range may have been the most accurate. But was there any calculation in that answer, any thought about how it might play with members of the National Rifle Association?

Gingrich has spoken to reporters about his passion for college football and told Politico that although his heart is with the Alabama Crimson Tide, he believes that L.S.U. will win. (He even said the if he were a betting man, he would put $10,000 on the Tigers.)

Santorum, who went to Penn State, really is a football fan. But does his family really huddle around the television? When did you last see a group of people doing that? Or did he know a good answer when he heard one (albeit incorrectly) from Gingrich?

Romney, taking the safe course, didn’t specify whether he was talking about college or professional football.

When Ron Paul answered, he picked up on the element of family that Santorum had injected into the rhetoric, and added a twist, possibly with comic intent: “I’d be home with my family,” Paul said. “But if they all went to bed, I’d probably read an economic textbook.”

Then Jon Huntsman picked up on the family angle but expanded it to include support for the military. “I’d be on the phone with my two boys in the United States Navy, because they’re a constant reminder of what is great about this nation and awesome about the emerging generation in this country.”

Wow, that is something to salute. But do most of the men and women in the Navy spend Saturday nights waiting for phone calls from their parents? I’m just asking.

What all this reveals about the process is that even while campaigning at the retail level, candidates can be detached from what makes the rest of America tick. While speeches and debate talking points may be uttered with absolute conviction, that is no guarantee that even the small personal details are true.

So what did they really do on Saturday night, after the cameras were off? Got ready to get up the next day and do it all again.

By Carla Baranauckas  |  11:43 PM ET, 01/08/2012

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