CONCORD, N.H. – Two days before an anticipated victory in this state’s primary puts him on a glide path to the GOP nomination, Mitt Romney walked off stage with few nicks from two back-to-back debates.
The squandering of two opportunities to knock Romney down on national television and in his own backyard underscored the impotence of the Republican field in 2012 and the former Massachusetts governor’s steam-rolling position. Just as candidates perceived as threats to Romney’s bid for the nomination have declined over the past year, his five remaining opponents on Sunday reverted to feebly wrestling with each other.
The anti-climactic broadcast sets up the last two days on New Hampshire’s campaign trail as a pre-emptive victory lap for Romney and the beginning of a farewell tour for his foundering rivals. A Suffolk University poll released during the debate showed Romney slipping slightly but still holding a double-digit lead.
Coaxed by NBC News moderator David Gregory and shamed by reviews of their meek debate performances the night before, Romney’s competitors trained their attacks on him at the onset of the debate. But the only punch with any sting came from Newt Gingrich, who chided Romney for portraying himself as a “citizen’’ candidate and reminded the audience of his 1994 U.S. Senate bid and years-long quest for the White House.
“I realize the red light doesn't mean anything to you because you're the front runner,’’ Gingrich sneered when Romney’s response ran long. “But can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?’’
Gingrich added, “You've been running consistently for years and years and years. So this idea that suddenly citizenship showed up in your mind -- just level with the American people.’’
A hard hit, but it comes after months of Romney successfully branding himself as a successful businessman in a carefully orchestrated and well-funded campaign. His mostly unflappable performances in the 15 major debates this year demonstrated that he has run this gauntlet before.
His quick thinking was evident Sunday when one of the moderators, WHDH’s Andy Hiller, tried to force Romney to acknowledge that he had once offered himself as a champion of gay rights as a U.S. Senate candidate. “I don’t discriminate,’’ Romney responded, adding that he made gubernatorial appointments regardless of sexual orientation but was clear about his opposition to same-sex marriage.
“If people are looking for someone who will discriminate against gays or will in any way try and suggest that people that have different sexual orientation don't have full rights in this country, they won't find that in me,’’ Romney said.
Hiller prodded: “When's the last time you stood up and spoke out for increasing gay rights?
“Right now,’’ Romney said cooly, eliciting applause from the audience.
Romney’s response reflects his relatively strong position heading into the general election, in which he will need help from Democratic and independent voters in order to deprive President Obama of a second term. Unlike many Republican primary candidates who veer toward the right to appease conservatives, only to have to scurry back to the mainstream for the general election, Romney has mostly straddled the middle ground. By condemning discrimination but standing firm against gay marriage, Romney has taken the same position as President Obama.
Much of the 90-minute debate reflected the much more competitive race for second place. Rick Santorum – who fell to fifth place in the Suffolk University poll – charged at Ron Paul, who has been holding steady in second place. Picking up on a question from Gregory about Paul’s scarce track record of passing legislation, Santorum said, “You're right. He's never really passed anything of any -- any import…He has no track record of being able to work together. He's been out there on the margins.''
But the Suffolk University pollsters partly attributed Santorum’s slide to his own out-of-the-mainstream views -- on gay marriage. A confrontation with a young woman at a town hall meeting in which Santorum compared same-sex marriage to polygamy appears not to be sitting well with New Hampshire’s more moderate electorate.