On Sunday, on a debate stage in Concord, N.H., the former Massachusetts governor may have reinforced those doubts. Twelve hours after skating impressively through another debate with his rivals for the Republican nomination, Romney delivered a far less effective performance.
This was the last opportunity for those trying to slow Romney’s march toward the nomination to go after him, and, unlike in Saturday night’s debate, they did. Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman all had their moments. Romney parried well at times but just as often came out the lesser from the exchanges.
The most telling moment came early in the debate, which was hosted by NBC’s “Meet the Press” and co-sponsored by Facebook and the New Hampshire Union Leader. Santorum argued that when Romney faced a tough reelection campaign as governor of Massachusetts in 2006, he ducked and decided not to seek a second term. Santorum said that when he faced a difficult challenge that same year, he stood and fought for his Senate seat from Pennsylvania — ultimately losing overwhelmingly. Santorum implied that he was a man of principle.
Romney, who has embraced the persona of citizen politician, businessman and political outsider to draw a contrast with President Obama, protested. He had sought the governor’s office in Massachusetts, he said, to make changes, and after four years he had done so.
“Run again?” Romney asked. “That would be about me. I was trying to help get the state into the best shape as I possibly could, left the world of politics, went back into business. . . . For me, politics is not a career.”
Santorum was incredulous. Gingrich, dropping his let’s-be-nice posture, told Romney to stop with the “pious baloney.”
Set aside the question of whether Romney ran away from a tough reelection race in 2006. The reality is that he chose to run for president in 2008 unencumbered by the burdens of being a sitting governor. He did not return to the private sector. By the early days of January 2007, he was raising millions for his campaign, as Gingrich pointed out.
“You didn’t have this interlude of citizenship while you thought about what to do,” the former House speaker said. “You were running for president while you were governor. You were going all over the country. . . . You then promptly reentered politics. You happened to lose to [2008 GOP nominee John] McCain, as you had lost to [Sen. Edward M.] Kennedy” in a Senate bid in 1994.
Gingrich’s closer went straight to the heart of the questions about Romney. “Just level with the American people,” he said.
There was another exchange with Gingrich near the end of the debate. The former speaker challenged Romney over negative — and, in Gingrich’s estimation, untrue — ads aired by a “super PAC” backing Romney’s candidacy. Gingrich demanded that Romney admit the ads were run by his friends and supporters and were not true.