CONCORD, N.H.--After failing to land a blow on Mitt Romney twelve hours earlier in Manchester, the challengers took the stage here this morning with a renewed sense of purpose--and they started pummeling. It was entirely different in feel and tone than last night's debate, which got bogged down on social issues and largely was a skirmish between the anti-Romneys for second place. Today's debate lived up to the hype--and gave us a sense of what's ahead.
Here are five takeaways--and what they may mean going forward:
1. Romney survives--but get ready to talk about electability. The debate made clear that issue--whether he is, in fact, most electable--is going to be front and center. Polls consistently show many voters, even those who don't necessarily agree with Romney on all issues, are backing him because they think he is best qualified to beat Barack Obama. Romney's challengers made clear today they are going all out to shake those assumptions. Gingrich said Romney will "have a very hard time getting elected," because he's too much of a moderate. Gingrich also continued to slam him from the Left for his work at Bain Capital. Expect this line of attack on Romney's electability to continue. After the debate, one of Rick Santorum's advisers told me his campaign is "going to go dead after him on electability" by arguing that Romney neutralizes the best arguments against Obama. Their argument goes something like this: If Romney is the nominee, you can't attack Obama's lack of foreign policy experience--since Romney has none, either. And if Romney's the nominee, you can't attack Obama's health care reform law--since Romney signed a Massachusetts health care reform law. And if Romney is the nominee, the new and energized bloc of the Republican Party--the Tea Party--won't be enthused to support someone to has supported government bailouts.
Taking the blows this morning, Romney seemed ready. He talked about his experience in business, and then he returned the punch, suggesting Gingrich and Santorum were career politicians who were feeding at the trough--which aren't exactly electable qualities. "If we want to replace a lifetime politician like Barack Obama, who had no experience leading anything, you have to choose someone who's not been a lifelong politician, who has not spent his entire career in Washington, " Romney said, continuing, "and instead has proven time and again he can lead, in the private sector twice, in the Olympics, and as a governor. We've got to nominate a leader if we're going to replace someone who is not a leader."
But the biggest argument for Romney's electability, as one of his advisers told me after the debate, is if he wins the upcoming primaries. The victories will speak for themselves.Special Section: Campaign 2012
2. Santorum emerges as the leading anti-Romney, anti-Paul candidate. Voters who aren't enthusiastic about Romney--or flat-out don't like him--are desperately searching for someone else. Now Santorum is on center stage, and people are taking the measure of the man. In some ways, he was introducing himself to the American people, and he acquitted himself well. Unlike the other candidates, Santorum directly answers the questions in these debates. He doesn't try to use the questions to leave a consistent message. He answers them. And his answers showed knowledge and experience, even when he got 30 seconds to talk about why Iran shouldn't have a nuclear weapon. Santorum said Iran was different from Pakistan because it was a theocracy that prized martyrdom. "When your principle virtue is to die for your -- for Allah, then it's not a deterrent to have a nuclear threat, if they would use a nuclear weapon," he said. "It is, in fact, an encouragement for them to use their nuclear weapon. And that's why there's a difference between the Soviet Union and China and others and Iran." Looking to solidify second-place status, Santorum also delivered a well-placed blow at Ron Paul, making the case that Paul should not be considered a serious contender, especially because of his foreign policy views. "The problem with Congressman Paul is, all the things that Republicans like about him he can't accomplish," Santorum said, "and all the things they're worried about, he'll do day one. And that's the problem."
But Paul had some good moments of his own, especially when he made a ringing endorsement of liberty. It was a nice reminder of why he has such passionate and devoted followers--and why many will stay with him until the end, no matter what Santorum says.
3. Gingrich returns to form--mostly. After a week of attacking Romney and complaining about his negative ads, Gingrich continued to, well, attack Romney and complain about his negative ads. But he also employed some of the old Gingrich techniques that made him a one-time frontrunner. He delivered some zingers ("can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney," he asked Romney at one point), but he also hit the media, showed off his mastery of the issues and didn't gratuitously pile on Romney at every opportunity. That last point is important, because he didn't come across as angry and bitter, as he did last week. It also made his selective attacks more effective. Here's an example:
GREGORY: It was Governor Romney who made the point to a young person who approached him that if he were president, and when this person got out of college, he or she'd have a job. If President Obama has a second term, he or she will not have a job. Isn't that the kind of thing that makes people angry, the politicians, easy answers like that?
GINGRICH: Well, I don't think that's an easy answer. I think that's a statement of fact.
Cue the audience laughter and applause.
4. Perry is still kicking. He's polling at 1 percent here in New Hampshire, so these debates for Perry are all about South Carolina, and he could show well there. He has money and an organization on the ground, and he could appeal to the voters in a state where six and 10 are born-again Christians. Remarkably, Perry is the only southerner in the race, and he's also the only candidate who talks about being a born-again Christian. Look for him to talk a lot about his faith and his roots as he fights to stay relevant in the race when everyone had written him off. There's almost something admirable in Perry's refusal to quit--which you think would be tempting for a prominent governor who has been completely ridiculed and mocked on the national stage. Instead, he continues to try to rehabilitate himself, and he almost did a mea culpa today by referring back to his disastrous debate performance, when he forgot which three federal agencies he would cut. The candidates were asked where they would make spending cuts that could cause people pain. Perry smiled and started to count: "I will tell you, it would be those bureaucrats at the Department of Commerce and -- and Energy -- and Education that we're going to do away with." It was a good, self-deprecating moment.
Perry also was the only candidate on the stage who didn't rip into Romney--instead choosing to portray himself as an outsider who stands apart from the bunch. "I look from here down to Rick Santorum I see insiders. Individuals who have been the big spending Republicans in -- in Washington, D.C.," Perry said. "There's a bunch of people standing up here that say they're conservatives, but the records don't follow up on that." If Perry exceeds expectations in South Carolina, he could keep Santorum or Gingrich from assuming the anti-Romney mantle. He also would keep that vote divided--which is why Rick Perry staying in the race was the best news Romney got out of Iowa.
5. Jon Huntsman has his moment. It may well be his last moment, unless he pulls off something remarkable here, but it was a moment. When Huntsman got into the race, his advisers saw him as a visionary, someone who could take Ronald Reagan's ideals and translate them for the 21st Century. He has struggled to show why they thought that, with his ill-timed quips and misplaced messaging. Today, we saw a glimpse, when he talked about leadership. "It's not about taking on different groups and vilifying them for whatever reason. It's about projecting a vision for a more hopeful tomorrow. That's why there is no trust in this country today," Huntsman said. "And that's why, as president, I'm going to attack that trust deficit just as aggressively as I attack that economic deficit. Because with no trust, I can't think of anything more corrosive longer term to the people of this nation."
That's not to say Huntsman stayed on the high road--he hit Romney hard. Or, shall I say, hard for Huntsman. Romney didn't take the bait.