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Inside the New Hampshire GOP Debate Spin Room

Lloyd Grove reports from backstage, where campaign surrogates waged a proxy war.

Andy Jacobsohn / MCT-Landov

Take the Tower of Babel, lay it on its side, and you pretty much have the spin room that followed Saturday night’s Republican presidential debate, staged by ABC News at New Hampshire’s Saint Anselm College.

As has become traditional over the past two decades of permanent campaigning, various politicians and political operatives—each supporting a candidate—gathered at the center of undulating clusters of cameras and microphones to create a cacophony of claims and accusations. Appropriately enough, it took place on the polished wooden floors of the college gym—home of the Hawks—and the elbows were at least as sharp as in a basketball final.

“Just Google ‘Huntsman,’ ‘letters’ and ‘Obama,’ and you’ll see the most ridiculously fawning letters that [Jon Huntsman] wrote saying what a wonderful president President Obama was,” former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a Mitt Romney spinner, was telling a gaggle of reporters. As for Huntsman’s debate display of his Chinese-language skills, Sununu quipped: “I thought it was Column B.”

Rick Santorum, meanwhile, “is a good guy, but Rick’s biggest problem is he’s got the disease that all legislators get,” Sununu went on. “They go there and they want to show their constituents they’re doing something, and so they start spending.”

And what about Newt Gingrich—whom Sununu recently described as “unstable”? “Actually, it might have been one of his better performances,” he said. “I think what’s interesting is that the New Newt has reverted to the Old Newt. People are discovering that there is no New Newt.”

Elsewhere in the hangar-sized space, Sen. Rand Paul was spinning for his dad, Ron; former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge was defending Huntsman; a very relieved-looking Nelson Warfield was celebrating the competent performance of Texas Gov. Rick Perry; and, at one point, Santorum showed up to pat himself on the back for a buzzing hive of media folk. Gingrich’s spinners included former Pennsylvania congressman Robert Walker. Romney deployed an army, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Minnesota governor (and previous rival) Tim Pawlenty, and Bay Buchanan, the younger sister of 1996 New Hampshire primary winner Pat Buchanan.

With the caveat that the shelf life is probably limited to Sunday morning, when NBC was going to stage its own debate, here’s a random sample of the Saturday night jive:

Pawlenty on Romney: “He got an A-plus grade. I think he taught a clinic. Mitt Romney, by far and away, is the best debater, the best advocate, for the Republican Party on that stage. It was like the varsity and the junior varsity.”

Huntsman campaign strategist John Weaver: “Our goal was to speak to the people of New Hampshire. We accomplished what we needed to accomplish.”

Robert Walker on Ron Paul calling Gingrich a “chicken hawk”: “I think that’s an ugly charge. Newt has been a very, very active participant with our military. I think he’s regarded as one of the top military strategists in the country.”

Rand Paul, defending the chicken-hawk charge: “One of the memorable lines for me was ‘I had two kids and served.’”

Nelson Warfield on Perry: “He rose above the cat fight and laid a solid hit on Barack Obama for his defense cuts.”

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The purpose of it all?

“Who the hell knows?” Sununu mused. “I’m trying to entertain you guys.”

Ridge theorized: “The purpose of this madness is to make sure all the candidates bring their loyal supporters to emphasize the positive. And we happily do it, by the way … I’m not sure we’re going to change any votes, but we’re trying.”