Two things were clear by the end of Saturday night’s Republican presidential primary debate in New Hampshire: Mitt Romney already sees himself as the GOP nominee, and his opponents are hardly using these televised showdowns to stop that from happening.
During the debate at St. Anselm College just three days before the New Hampshire primary, Romney barely criticized or engaged his Republican primary opponents. He instead spent most of his time going after President Obama, even when the debate moderators asked him to differentiate himself from his rivals.
“Well they can do a lot better than Barack Obama, lets put it that way,” Romney said when asked to respond to former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s assertion that he understands national security issues better than any other Republican running for president.
In some instances, Romney even praised the other Republican candidates.
“As you can tell, the people in this room feel that Speaker Gingrich is absolutely right, and I do too,” Romney said after Gingrich said the news media refuses to cover “anti-Christian bigotry.”
At another point Romney said, “I congratulate Governor Huntsman on the success in his governorship to make the state more attractive for business. That has got to happen.”
Except for some brief — and mild — discussion of Romney’s business history, the candidates waited until about an hour and a half into the debate to even criticize the former Massachusetts governor. And he was hardly damaged by the attacks.
Gingrich bragged about a Wall Street Journal editorial that said Romney’s jobs plan was “timid and more like Obama.”
Santorum said, “I agree with Speaker Gingrich. I don’t think Gov. Romney’s plan is particularly bold or particularly focused on where the problems are in this country.”
“I was not ever for an individual mandate,” the former senator added, referring to Romney’s signature health care achievement in Massachusetts. “I wasn’t for a top-down government healthcare system. I wasn’t for the big-bank Wall Street bailout as Governor Romney was.”
On the prospect of a trade war with China, Huntsman said, “It’s nonsense to think you can slap a tariff on China the day you’re in office as Governor Romney would like to do.”
That elicited Romney’s only notable aggressive moment of the night. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Governor, you were, the last two years, implementing the policies of this [Obama] administration in China. The rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country.”
During the earlier part of the debate, Iowa caucuses winner Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich often found themselves sparring with Texas Rep. Ron Paul instead of with Romney.
Both Santorum and Gingrich accused Paul of lying about their records.
“They caught you not telling the truth, Ron,” Santorum said to Paul after microphone feedback noise interrupted the Texas congressman after he said Santorum was “one of the top corrupt individuals, because he took so much money from the lobbyists.”
“Dr. Paul has a long history of saying things that are inaccurate and false,” Gingrich said after Paul criticized him for never serving in the military.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, asked whether military service better prepares him to be commander-in-chief, said, “I think it brings a very clear knowledge about what it requires for those that are on the front lines.”
Observers called the debate a win for Romney, who left the stage without any significant bruises from his opponents.
Alex Castellanos, a veteran GOP operative, said Romney looked the “most mature, confident, presidential I’ve ever seen him.”
Republican strategist Mike Murphy called it “Romney’s best debate ever.”