If the national press corps was looking for a knife fight between Mitt Romney and the other five candidates on the stage they were dreadfully disappointed. In spite of the best efforts of the ABC and WMUR moderators, it was mostly hands-off Mitt but plenty of squabbling among the non-Romney candidates.
The most energetic confrontation was between Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich over Paul’s having referred to Gingrich as a “chicken hawk” for never having served in the military. Gingrich said he was married and had a child. Paul countered that he was married and had two children but when he was called he served [as an Air Force flight surgeon.]
Gingrich scored some big points by returning to his tested tactic of attacking the media on the issue of focusing on the unfairness of those who oppose same-sex marriage, but not mentioning the unfairness of governments refusing to fund Catholic charities because they disagree with the charities’ abortion policies.
Santorum sought to portray himself as best qualified to be Commander-in-Chief by dint of his Congressional service and handled it pretty well, after an early squabble with Ron Paul. He has grown into his position as a major player and had decided not to try and go toe-to-toe with his opponents but attempt to elevate his image by talking about broad issues, not engaging in nit-picking against his opponents.
Rick Perry got off to a fast start with his first answer but, as has happened throughout this debate series, disappeared after the first 45 minutes or so. After the first 20 minutes of squabbling among the candidates with Congressional experience he said “this is why I got into this race” to bring some non-Washington sanity to the discussion, but that was the high point of his appearance.
Jon Huntsman was reasoned, smart, experienced and the non-factor he has been throughout this election cycle.
It seemed to me that the producers were reading the Twitter feeds about Romney, essentially getting the night off and ordered Stephanopoulos to really press him on the really pressing issue of: Should states have the right to ban contraception.
Huh? That was the best the political unit could come up with?
By the time the 1:20 mark had passed it seemed as if everyone was running out of gas. The candidates began to fall back on their stump speeches and the moderators, tired of having been pilloried, fell back on asking questions which would allow the candidates to hide behind those sound bites.
One moment of excitement was when Romney challenged Huntsman (former Obama Administration Ambassador to China) on China policy. Huntsman responded with a phrase in Mandarin which was probably not helpful in New Hampshire, much less South Carolina.
The scorecard: Romney was the clear winner but may face a different group in tomorrow morning’s debate. Santorum showed he can play at the top level of this group. Gingrich may have been harmed by Paul over the military debate, but he reminded people why they thought he should be in the race in the first place. Paul spoke to his base and his base will answer for him on Tuesday. Perry and Huntsman were also on the stage.