Fierce! (Melina Mara)

If that’s the Romney running against President Obama, it’s going to be a slugfest, not in the sense that you find a bunch in your garden in the morning and if you throw salt on it they will die, but in the sense that it’ll be brutal and pugnacious.

Ron Paul’s second-place speech was about what you’d expect — he praised liberty and people shouted something involved about the Constitution.

Jon Huntsman seemed to have been watching some other election, one where a third-place finish in New Hampshire after 170 events equates to a ticket to South Carolina.

We got it done, ladies and gentlemen . . .170 public events. No one even came close.” I had no idea the goal in New Hampshire was to throw more public events than anyone else and come in third, but, hey, congrats. It’s the effort that counts, right?

Still, he seemed optimistic. America, he observed, is full of great people. “You know the people I’m talking about, they’re in our families, they’re in our neighborhoods, we love them all,” Huntsman said, sounding as though he’d left his speech on the bus.

But Romney’s speech took the night. He told off Europe. He told off the rest of the field. He even used rhetorical devices. Romney contrasted “lofty promises made by a hopeful candidate” with “the disappointing record of a failed president.” The past few years are “a detour, not a destiny.”

Romney proclaimed, “The president has run out of ideas. Now he’s running out of excuses. Let’s make 2012 the year he runs out of time.”

Barack Obama, said Romney, wakes up in the morning and proudly announces, “It could be worse.”

“That is not what it means to be an American, ‘It could be worse,’” Romney noted. “That’s what defines us as Americans, is our unwavering conviction: We know it must be better and it will be better.”

Coming from someone with whom the words “settling” and “acceptable” have been too often associated, this was radical stuff.

“Our campaign is about more than replacing a president,” Romney noted. “It’s about saving the soul of America.”

Even I didn’t know we had this much at stake! Apparently, in addition to the dubious things he’s done to the economy, President Obama made some sort of deal with the Devil, but fortunately Mitt Romney is very good at the fiddle, so he will sort this out right away.

Next Romney promised all sorts of things. He’d balance the budget. He’d stand with Israel. He’d make other nations quake at the mere mention of our military. He even got in a dig at the other campaigns for engaging in the “bitter politics of envy” and joining forces with Obama to “put free enterprise on trial.”

(“BOOOOOOOOO,” said the crowd.)

His speech was going so swimmingly that he started delivering other candidates’ speeches as well. “I will not apologize for America!” he bellowed, channeling Rick Perry. “Our blueprint is the Constitution of the United States,” he added, summoning the restless ghost of Ron Paul.

If there is one thing that emerged from this speech, it is that Mitt Romney does not like Europe. He missed a time when “the White House reflected the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe has become.”

“I’m asking you to remember how special it was to be an American,” Romney went on. Everyone went about as wild as you might expect at a Romney rally — which is to say, wild, but not so wild that anything was spilled.

“Thank you so much!” he concluded. “God bless America! Thanks you guys! Yer the best!”

Cut to commenters complaining that the night had been a failure for him.

Look, as One Of Those People Who Comment On These Things For a Living, I wish it were really as disappointing an evening for Romney as the people on TV seemed to think. “He only won by double digits!” they lamented. “Romney’s washed up!”

But he’s won — twice, now, once by an actual margin. He’s clearly on the path to be the nominee.

Still, if there’s one thing this field has held up as its dominant principle, it is that they refuse to accept that Mitt Romney is in any way the obvious nominee. “He’s only won two states!” they point out. So this isn’t the end, by any means.

But I think it’s over – give or take six more months of shouting.