The dog that didn’t bark made the loudest noise in Saturday night’s oddly desultory ABC/WMUR/Yahoo News candidate debate in New Hampshire. The most important development was something that didn’t happen: None of Mitt Romney’s rivals drove home an effective argument against him. Finding five key takeaways in a debate that did almost nothing to disturb the pro-Romney dynamic solidifying in the race may be a challenge -- but that’s why we’re here. So here are the five key takeaways from Saturday night’s Republican debate in Manchester:
1. Maybe the five Republicans chasing Romney are now running for vice president. With a narrow victory in Iowa behind him, a huge lead in New Hampshire polls, and even a budding advantage in South Carolina according to the latest surveys, the former Massachusetts governor could be literally weeks from the nomination. But his opponents displayed no sense of urgency or even focus in challenging him. When was the last time a New Hampshire front-runner three days from a potentially runaway victory spent 90 minutes in a debate without getting a hair mussed? (Even front-runners with less imperturbable hair than Romney.)
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich came the closest to confronting Romney, but even he pulled his punches, relying on the New York Times (Hey, was an NPR story not available?) to make his case against Romney’s record at Bain Capital and pointedly refusing to affirm his stump-speech denunciation of Romney as a “timid Massachusetts moderate” when given the chance. It wasn’t quite a Tim Pawlenty moment (who blinked at repeating in a CNN debate his attack on Romney’s health care plan and never quite recovered), but it was close. Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum delivered a glancing blow at Romney over health care, the TARP program and cap-and-trade, but only 90 minutes into the evening, by which time Romney had used the time more effectively than any of those around him. Which brings us to point No. 2:
2. On a night when his opponents needed to step up, Romney delivered the most compelling and disciplined performance. At 9:57 p.m., GOP strategist Mike Murphy, who is neutral this year, tweeted: “Half over. Mitt thought bubble: Should I wear this tie for my acceptance speech at convention? Or maybe a different one. Hmmm....” It wasn’t much of an exaggeration. Because he wasn’t forced to spend much time defending himself, Romney was able to deliver his standard appeal in bite-sized chunks over the course of the debate. Edit the tape and you’d have a fair approximation of his stump speech.
He effectively looked past his opponents to focus his fire on President Obama and he engaged in a little Gingrich-like playing to the bleachers when he mocked moderator George Stephanopoulos’ question about the 1965 Supreme Court case overturning state laws that banned contraception. (Santorum has argued that the case, the foundation for Roe v. Wade, was wrongly decided.) Romney got a little tangled at one point during that extended exchange, but not enough to do him any damage, especially with a Republican electorate. He probably faced greater risk of a nick shaving before the debate than he did while on stage.
3. Instead of confronting Romney, the remaining candidates diffused their fire in scattershot attacks on each other. Memo to field: Generally speaking, no one remembers who finishes second in presidential nomination races. Santorum and Gingrich showed much more passion in jousting with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas than they did with Romney. Paul was even more acerbic toward both men, but never mentioned Romney. (Paul’s ads, which ran incessantly during the debate in New Hampshire, followed the same pattern -- targeting Santorum and Gingrich, without mentioning Romney.)
Presumably, Santorum and Gingrich feel that getting past Paul here, which could help establish either of them as the principal conservative alternative to Romney in South Carolina, is a more achievable goal than overcoming Romney’s big lead in New Hampshire. The problem with that theory is that unless someone develops a line of argument to reverse Romney’s solidifying support across the next states on the calendar, by the time someone emerges from the pack as the clear alternative to him, he may have the race sewn up. That could happen as soon as Jan. 21 in South Carolina, where a Romney victory would put him on track for a knockout blow in Florida on Jan 31.
4. Santorum seemed comfortable and confident at center stage, but missed a critical opportunity to sharpen his profile. Not only did Santorum almost entirely fail to land a glove on Romney, he did very little to identify himself as the champion of working-class, blue-collar families. Santorum is unlikely to dislodge Romney’s hold on more affluent, better-educated and more secular Republican voters -- not only in New Hampshire but in South Carolina and Florida.
If there is a path forward for him, it’s to consolidate socially conservative and economically populist, blue-collar Republicans. He targets those voters very effectively on the stump (as in his appearance Saturday morning at a National Journal/Atlantic forum in Manchester on the economy and the electorate.) But on Saturday he never found a way to work in the most distinctive aspect of his appeal -- his heart-felt lament about the decline of upward mobility for blue-collar Americans. Santorum showed hints of why he could be an attractive alternative to the smooth and affluent Romney, but in most respects the debate seemed a big missed chance for him.
5. As for the others, here’s what we know: If the GOP presidential nomination thing doesn’t work out, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman could definitely run for mayor of Shanghai. And while Texas Gov. Rick Perry had one of his strongest debate performances, the way things are going for Romney even that could redound to his benefit because a Perry revival would further fragment the social conservative voters in South Carolina who may represent the last real chance of derailing, or even extending, Romney’s march toward the nomination.