The debate in Hanover, N.H., had plenty of gaffes and missteps. But one highlight was this exchange between Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney:

HUNTSMAN: . . .Since some might see you because of your past employment with Bain Capital as more of a financial engineer, somebody who breaks down businesses, destroys jobs, as opposed to creating jobs and opportunity, leveraging up, spinning off, enriching shareholders, since you were number 47 as governor of the state of Massachusetts, where we were number one, for example, and the whole discussion around this campaign is going to be job creation, how can you win that debate given your background?

ROMNEY: Well, my background is quite different than you described, John. So the way I’ll win it is by telling people an accurate rendition of what I have done in my life. And fortunately, people in New Hampshire, living next door, have a pretty good sense of that.

They understand that in the business I was in, we didn’t take things apart and cut them off and sell them off. We, instead, helped start businesses, and they know some of the names.

We started Staples. We started the Sports Authority. We started Bright Horizons children’s centers. Heck, we even started a steel mill in a farm field in Indiana, and that steel mill operates today and employs a lot of people.

So, we began businesses. Sometimes we acquired businesses and tried to turn them around, typically effectively. And that created tens of thousands of new jobs.

And I am proud of the fact that we were able to do that. That is a big part of the American system.

People are not going to — in my opinion, are not going to be looking for someone who is not successful. They want someone who has been successful and who knows how fundamentally the economy works.

Look, I would not be in this race had I spent my life in politics alone. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but right now, with the American people in the kind of financial crisis they are in, they need someone who knows how to create jobs, and I do.

This was not just a neat bit of political jiu jitsu by Romney; it was a rare (rare these days, at any rate) defense of capitalism. You hear President Obama and Democrats excoriate Wall Street, as if the people there do nothing and the economy could magically run without them. The Occupy Wall Street crowd condemns corporations and banks. Where do they suppose wealth and jobs come from?

The point Romney was making was really twofold. The anti-capitalism perspective voiced by Huntsman, much of the media and liberal politicians has become commonplace. It’s also counterproductive and creates a siege mentality that inhibits risk-taking and turns businessmen into rent-seekers and lobbyists.

The other takeaway from Romney is that capitalism means sometimes you lose. He created thousands of ”net jobs,” meaning he, unlike politicians, actually created jobs. But he acknowledges there are losses and sometimes people lose their jobs. It’s not the government’s job to prevent failure or to move money from one pocket to another (as in Solyndra or the Texas enterprise funds). In Romney’s mind, government’s job is to create a sensible tax code, a reasonable level of regulation and respect for the rule of law (which he says was abrogated in the Boeing case). Those have been the factors that have contributed to wealth creation.

Some conservatives bristled at his comparison with Texas Gov. Rick Perry: “[W]e have less than 1 percent of our kids that are uninsured. You have a million kids uninsured in Texas. A million kids. Under President Bush, the percentage uninsured went down. Under your leadership, it’s gone up.” This is not a fellow who believes in tearing down the safety net or who is opposed to what Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has described as a federal government that is “ both vital and limited.” Perry, a defender of state-level cronyism, seems to cast these things as a choice between job creation and health care. That is the sort of false choice Obama so often likes to present.

In a real sense, Romney’s is a call for government to do its job and the private sector to do its own. We run into problems when the government either squashes or co-opts business, and we fail to meet the public’s real desires for a social safety net if we grow government too big (“big government is lethargic government,” Ryan said) or operate as if responding to the desires of citizens for good education, a poverty-free retirement and affordable health-care coverage is an affront to conservatism. The Republican contenders and the voters would do well to think hard about capitalism and the proper role of government. It is, after all, the central concern of our time.