Mitt Romney Walks Away Unscathed From Yet Another Debate
Watching last night's debate, you would have been surprised to learn that Mitt Romney has any real opponents in the Republican race.
If there’s been one recurring theme from the 14 debates that the Republican candidates for President have had since last May, it’s been the extent to which the putative frontrunner, the guy that all the other candidates supposedly hate and who several have said has more in common with Barack Obama than your average Republican has walked away without taking any real heat from his opponents. It happened when Tim Pawlenty backed away from his “ObamneyCare” comments. It happened when Rick Perry failed to effectively distinguish himself from Romney. It happened after Perry faded when candidates like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich were making their climb in the polls. Last night at St. Anslem College in Manchester, New Hampshire, it happened again:
A relaxed and self-assured Mitt Romney sailed above the fray at a crucial debate on Saturday night as his Republican rivals engaged in a spirited fight to determine which of them would emerge as his most formidable opponent when the party’s nominating contest moves past New Hampshire.
Mr. Romney, who had been bracing for an onslaught of attacks, brushed aside a critique about job losses during his time buying and selling companies at his investment firm. He defended his record as Massachusetts governor with ease, fielding only occasional questions about the similarities between his state health care law and the national version championed by President Obama.
Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania painted himself as the one candidate on the stage with the credentials to provide a pure, conservative case against Mr. Obama. He warned Republicans that Mr. Romney’s pedigree would make it more difficult to push back against the income equality argument that is a central theme of the president’s re-election strategy.
“I was not ever for an individual mandate. I wasn’t for a top-down, government-run health care system. I wasn’t for the big bank of Wall Street bailout, as Governor Romney was,” Mr. Santorum said. “We’re looking for someone who can win this race, who can win this race on the economy and on the core issues of this election.”
Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who did not rule out a third-party run if he failed to win the Republican nomination, attacked Mr. Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Both of them, he said, had profited from promoting the agendas of corporations to their old colleagues in Congress.
“I mean, he became a high-powered lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and he has done quite well,” Mr. Paul said of Mr. Santorum, who, like Mr. Gingrich, had corporate clients after leaving government but did not register as a lobbyist. “We checked out Newt, on his income. I think we ought to find out how much money he has made from the lobbyists as well.”
In one of the most personal clashes of the evening, Mr. Paul and Mr. Gingrich fought over military service. Mr. Gingrich said he was married and had a child, so he did not join the military as a young man. Mr. Paul said that he, too, had children, and when he was drafted, “I went.”
The candidates gathered on the campus of St. Anselm College, just outside Manchester, three days before the New Hampshire primary moves the Republican Party one step closer to selecting a nominee to challenge Mr. Obama. The evening unfolded with far more civility than many previous debates, with a battle for second place emerging as the storyline in a central moment of the campaign.
One especially pointed critique of Mr. Romney also came from Mr. Gingrich, the former House speaker, who was asked whether he agreed with an anti-Romney video being promoted by a “super PAC” supporting Mr. Gingrich. The video claimed Mr. Romney destroyed jobs while at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he helped start.
While Mr. Gingrich said he had not seen the video, he said that he agreed, adding that Mr. Romney was “enamored of a Wall Street model where you can flip companies, you can go in and have leveraged buyouts, you can basically take out all the money, leaving behind the workers.”
In reply, Mr. Romney said that it was an attack he might expect to hear from Democrats and that his company on whole created 100,000 net jobs when he was there.
The debate, sponsored by ABC News and Yahoo, was to be followed Sunday morning by a special edition of NBC’s “Meet the Press” with all of the candidates.
“Why even stop?” Mr. Romney joked at a campaign stop. “Why not just go right straight through?”
Mr. Romney, who holds a lead of about 20 points in several polls in New Hampshire, may have had the most to lose from the extended exposure. But despite the harsh criticism leading up to the debate, with his rivals making boastful promises to try to tear down the front-runner, he seemed to emerge largely unscathed and showed no signs of the agitation that he displayed throughout the fall.
He glided with ease through constitutional issues surrounding same-sex marriage, contraception and abortion, drawing laughter and applause when he suggested that those were not the most important matters of the day.
In fact, there was barely any confrontation, or any memorable moments last night. It was rather surprising considering the extent to which both Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum had promised to bring the fight to Romney in New Hampshire. While their stump speeches, and Newt’s commercials, have gone after Romney for the usual reasons, both men demurred to go on the attack during the opportunities they were given. Gingrich’s one attack on Romney, as noted above, related to his time at Bain Capital and the allegation that he was involved in flipping companies, firing workers, and walking away with the profits. Romney was prepared for that attack, though, and cited several examples, including well-known companies like The Sports Authority and Staples, where Bain had been able to turn a struggling company around and leave it in a condition to become a major national retailer that employs tens of thousands of people. Gingrich’s attack seemed even more out of place considering that it was at a Republican debate. As ridiculous an issue as it is, one can easily see a Democrat going after Romeny on this issue, why Gingrich was giving them ammunition for the General Election is beyond me. Perhaps oddest part of the whole exchange, though, was the extent to which Gingrich was relying on The New York Times for his assertions about Bain Capital. Say what you will about the Times but citing them isn’t exactly going to impress many conservatives.
Later in the debate, though, Gingrich was asked to back up the comments he’d made about Romney’s record. Much like Tim Pawlenty did those many months ago, Gingrich demurred and, instead of the nasty Newt we’ve seen since the night of the Iowa Caucuses, we saw him toss out a a weak sounding line about his opponent and move on. It was a pretty astounding moment, really. Nobody has any real chance to beat Romney in New Hampshire, but if Gingrich and the others wanted set the tone of the debate for coming two weeks, which end with the South Carolina primary, he needed to start doing last night. Instead, he shrunk away from the fight. As the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato tweeted out at one point during the night “If present trend continues, best last question: “Would you like to concede to Romney tonite or wait until Tuesday?””
As it turned out, the last question of the night came when Diane Sawyer asked each of the candidates what they would have been doing last night if they weren’t at the debate. Newt Gingrich came off with the worst answer of the night when he said he’d be watching the “College basketball championship game” then changed it to “football.” Of course, the BCS Championship Game isn’t on till Monday night. Perhaps Gingrich was thinking of the Saints-Lions game that was running opposite the debate, but then again Newt doesn’t strike me as much of a sports guy to begin with. In any event, that was just the final moment in what was another really badly run ABC debate. Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopolous spent more time asking ridiculous questions about contraceptives than they did about jobs and the economy, a point that Mitt Romney made when that particular question was tossed his way. Of all the media entities that have run debates so far this election cycle, ABC’s have been the worst, largely thanks to the presences of Sawyer and Stephanopolous. If they do another one, they need turn the questioning duties over to Jake Tapper and Rick Klein, their political reporters.
There were a few other highlights. Jon Huntsman made several good points on tax reform and foreign policy, but even he backed off when given the chance to attack the frontrunner. Rick Perry, who barely seemed like he was there at times, said we should send troops back to Iraq. The fact that the Iraqis don’t want us there didn’t seem to occur to the Texas Governor. Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich got into a bizarre argument over service in the military, which came up because of Paul’s comments earlier this week where he had called Gingrich a “chickenhawk.” Paul and Santorum got into another argument over Santorum’s record and Paul’s accusation that Santorum’s spending record made him a “liberal.” It was all interesting, but one imagined Mitt Romney smiling to himself the whole time, because every time his opponents were attacking each other, they weren’t attacking him.
So, why did Mitt Romney get away unscathed yet again, especially considering that he seems on the verge of pulling off a trifecta of victories that would essentially end the race for the nomination?
ABC News’s Amy Walter cites a number of factors:
1) It’s a lot easier to attack someone when you aren’t standing three feet away from him. Rick Santorum was exactly where he said he’s always wanted to be in this campaign. In the center of the stage and in the spotlight. But, he also discovered, as many others have before him, that with that new position on stage comes additional and unexpected pressures. Making an attack on the campaign trail is easy. Saying it to someone’s face is hard.
2) The Likability Factor: For months now, the focus has been on which candidate can ultimately become the “not-Mitt” alternative. And, every week it seems, there has been a different alternative. But, voters want to do more than vote against a candidate, they want to vote FOR someone. Attacking Romney would only remind voters about what they disliked about a candidate instead of what they liked about him. Moreover, when Gingrich and Santorum go on the attack, they can come across as snide or mean, the opposite of likable.
3) The Future: Specifically, candidates on stage had to be thinking of their political future. Did Gingrich want to be known as the candidate that did a slash and burn job on the eventual nominee or that his biting attack on Romney was turned into a devastatingly effective ad for Obama?
Matt Lewis argues that, in reality, each of the candidates is acting in their own rational self-interest:
By playing nice, each candidate is acting in his own rational self interest — but it just so happens to be an existential threat to the group, collectively.
Individually, this makes perfect sense. Some of the candidates, by now, know they cannot win. As such, they have little incentive to attack Romney. (Perhaps he will give them a position in his administration if they help him? Maybe he would counter-attack them and make them look bad if they criticize him? Or maybe they just want to be thought of as “nice”?)
Meanwhile, the candidates who think they can win — Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich — probably believe their best shot at the nomination is to finish second in New Hampshire. And while going “negative” in a debate may hurt Romney, it would also tarnish their reputation, as well.
They could, perhaps, work together on this (as Gingrich suggested they might), but the best scenario is to let the other guy do the dirty work so you skate completely free. (This is sort of like prisoners dilemma, where “two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interest to do so.”)
All of this is likely true. Santorum and Perry in particular perhaps think of themselves at this point as potential Vice-Presidential running mates. Jon Huntsman may covet a place in a Romney Administration. Even Gingrich is smart enough to know that if he ends the 2012 campaign with the reputation of being the guy who tarnished the eventual nominee it will harm his reputation in the conservative community. As for Ron Paul, well, he’s got his own agenda and it doesn’t really involve either winning the nomination or taking out Mitt Romney so, why bother? There’s a second debate this morning on Meet The Press and simulcast on MSNBC for those of you who don’t get the show live, but I doubt it will be any different from what we saw last night.
Last night, Mitt Romney took one more step toward winning the Republican nomination. What’s surprising is that his opponents seem to be strewing his path with rose petals.
Update: My post on Sunday morning’s NBC debate can be found here.