MANCHESTER, N.H.--It was billed as a Mitt Romney take-down, a pile on. Romney would be a punching bag and end up bloodied.
Instead, for most of the night, the others brawled and Romney watched. The occasional punch went his way, but it never landed. In fact, the entire feel of this debate, with its outsized focus on social issues, was like watching the undercard- and wondering if the main event will be the next debate tomorrow morning in Concord.
Here are five takeways:
1. Mitt Romney emerged not only unscathed, but stronger. While the others were slugging it out, Romney was skewering President Obama, refusing to criticize his competitors, defending his work in the private sector and outlining why he should be the nominee. But there was one moment that provided viewers with a side of Romney we haven't seen, and it was one of his best exchanges to date. His answer was extremely clever-wily, almost. And his tone was spot on.
The question from George Stephanopoulos was whether states have a "right" to ban contraception. It obviously was intended to trip up Romney (that's a classic question from Democrats for Republican judicial nominees) or set up a clash between Romney and Rick Santorum, who has said he sharply disagrees with Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 Supreme Court decision that found a right to privacy in the Constitution and struck down the state's ban on contraception.
But instead of launching into a legalistic discourse, Romney was incredulous at the question. "I mean, the idea of you putting forward things that... no state wants to do and asking me whether they could do it or not is kind of a silly thing, I think." Romney said he of course wouldn't vote to ban contraception (which is Santorum's ultimate position), and then went on to blast judicial activism and argue that judges should not "stuff" rights into the Constitution that don't exist.
It sounded like he had read a transcript from Chief Justice John Roberts' confirmation hearings. Conservatives hate Griswold, which they see as inventing rights and paving the way for Roe v. Wade. But Roberts and others have said Griswold now is settled law and needn't be overturned.
Saturday night, Romney dodged and weaved- and eventually said he didn't think Griswold was properly decided- or Roe v. Wade, for that matter. (No shock there.) But his great triumph was in his tone. Instead of robotically and dutifully answering the question, or attacking Santorum, he seemed taken aback Stephanopolous was even asking such a stupid question about whether states, in 2012, have a "right" to ban birth control. A viewer at home had to feel the same way. It made Romney seem human and sensible.
2. Rick Santorum took center stage, and he acted like he belonged there. He introduced himself as a frontrunner by talking substance on issues like Iran, and he held his own under some tough attacks, especially by Ron Paul--who was egged on by debate moderators. But Santorum kept his calm and measured his responses, while defending his views and making no apologies. He was earnest and sincere, and he got in a dig at Romney for lacking inspirational vision, saying that being a CEO is different than being a commander in chief. He also introduced a new line of attack, accusing Romney of sounding like a Democrat for talking about different classes of people- in Romney's case, the middle class.
"I don't think we should be using, as Republicans, 'middle class.' There are no classes in America," Santorum said. "We don't put people in classes. There may be middle income people, but the idea that somehow or another we're going to buy into the class warfare arguments of Barack Obama is something that should not be part of the Republican lexicon. That's their job, divide, separate, put one group against another."
3. Gingrich missed his moment. He was going to come out fighting. He was going to take it straight to Romney. He was going for payback for all those negative ads. He was going to slow down the surging Santorum. Instead, he floundered. He failed to hit Romney where he's most vulnerable- his conservatism- or draw a contrast with his own ideas. Instead, Gingrich pulled a page right out of the Obama campaign's opposition research book and attacked Romney for his work at Bain Capital--and urged viewers to read a New York Times story about it."They took one specific company. They walked through in detail. They showed what they bought it for, how much they took out of it, and the 1,700 people they left unemployed," Gingrich said. "Now that's -- check "The New York Times" story, but that's their story."
Not only is that the first time I can recall a Republican politician urging people to read the New York Times, but it was directly contrary to Gingrich's effective approach of attacking the liberal, mainstream media. It also gave Romney an opening to criticize the Gingrich (and Santorum) for calling into question his emphasis on free enterprise.
"I'm not surprised to have "The New York Times" try and put free enterprise on trial. I'm not surprised to have the Obama administration do that, either," Romney responded. "It's a little surprising from my colleagues on this stage."
4. Ron Paul remains a player. Paul was, as always, true to himself. He gave a rousing defense of smaller government, and he made the case for sharp spending cuts. He accused Santorum of being a "big government, big spending individual." He stood by his negative ads calling Santorum and Gingrich hypocrites for cashing in after they left Congress.
And no one delivered a harsher and more devastating line tonight than Ron Paul. Gingrich was asked to respond to Paul calling him a "chicken hawk" because he voted to send "kids off to war" and never served himself. Gingrich acted offended, saying his father served in the military and that he wasn't drafted--and he went straight at Paul.
"Dr. Paul has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false," Gingrich said. "I think I have a pretty good idea of what it's like as a family to worry about your father getting killed. And I personally resent the kind of comments and aspersions he routinely makes without accurate information and then just slurs people with. "
Paul was like an assassin with one bullet.
"I need one quick follow-up," he said. "When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids, and I went."
Here's what the transcript says next: (APPLAUSE)
5. The candidates on the bottom didn't move the needle. Rick Perry should have had this performance 10 debates ago. While it was nothing flashy or memorable, it also meant he didn't have any flashy or memorable gaffes, either. He didn't have this performance 10 debates ago. Saturday night, he needed to be flashy and memorable in a positive way. Alas, he wasn't.
And then there's Jon Huntsman. His memorable moment was when he spoke Chinese, which an NBC reporter who speaks Mandarin translated to Romney "doesn't understand the situation." That may get him some support in China, but it won't help him much here.