Romney’s Great Escape

The front-runner skates through Saturday night’s debate unscathed.

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum
Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum

Photograph by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

The Romney campaign has the best voodoo operation in American campaign history. This is the only conclusion I can draw after yet another debate in which the front-runner went unscathed. Before the Saturday night debate in Manchester, N.H., Romney’s opponents promised they were going to attack him. They had an opportunity, and they didn’t take it. This has happened repeatedly throughout the GOP primary season. In some room at the Radisson, aides in Romney fleeces and headdresses must have been controlling things with little dolls. Their only slip-up: It was a little much when they made the Huntsman doll speak Chinese. A little over the top.

This piece is being written during the 10-hour intermission between the two debates on the eve of the New Hampshire primary. At this point, while everyone is picking the popcorn out of their teeth, getting some sleep, and still trying to figure out the back and forth between Romney and moderator George Stephanopoulos over contraception, we can declare Mitt Romney the winner by a long shot.

Romney’s opponents didn’t attack. He gave thorough answers and provided one of the lines of the night. During the contraception cul-de-sac he said “Contraception, it’s working fine. Leave it alone.” The audience laughed.

Romney once again showed he has learned from doing this before. Repeatedly Romney reminded people that he had worked in the real world. He made it through the contraception debate, which revolved around the question of whether a right to privacy exists in the Constitution, in part by being obtuse about the question. (There is no reason to help the moderator when he’s trying to snare you.) He also ignored another question that didn’t suit him, instead repeating the strongest part of his stump speech, about the broken soul of the country. The riff was so potent, Gingrich admitted it was a “good message” for a campaign.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Newt Gingrich’s spokesman called the debate “fight night.” A longtime Republican strategist said he expected Gingrich to be so aggressive he’d walk onstage with a black robe and scythe. An adviser to Rick Santorum said Romney should wear a flak jacket.

Everyone was primed for a fight because Romney needs to be knocked down or he’s going to run away with the nomination. His advantage in money and organization is working for him. Newt Gingrich seemed the one most likely to go on the attack. He had been calling Romney a moderate all week and promising to point out where Romney fell short as a conservative on a host of issues. On the Sean Hannity Show earlier in the week he was tough and clear. He even put up a website devoted to Romney’s shortcomings.

When Gingrich was given two chances to fulfill the promises he had been making, he offered timid critiques. This was striking because he was simultaneously making an argument that he is more bold than Romney. Instead of taking it to his rival, Gingrich on each occasion hid behind mainstream media outlets, quoting from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The latter is fine for conservatives, but quoting the Times is like quoting Pravda. What makes this particularly odd is that Gingrich’s previous role in life was to deliver groin kicks to the mainstream media. If he’d made specific detailed critiques himself, he might have helped viewers understand Romney’s flaws.

Romney has been derided for his robotlike manner, but it turns out he is human after all. And the human Romney hates Jon Huntsman. When Huntsman challenged him on China, Romney could have let it go. Huntsman is miles behind him in the polls. But he couldn’t resist. He said while Huntsman was working for Obama, the others onstage were working to get Republicans elected.

Rick Santorum made an effort to define Romney, arguing that he had the right kind of leadership experience and highlighting some of Romney’s weaknesses. “We need a leader,” Santorum said. “We don’t need a manager.” It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t compelling enough to make you repeat it at breakfast. And Romney cannily deflected the idea he is just some technocrat, arguing that Santorum as a Washington politician didn’t understand business-world success.

There was plenty of attacking between the other non-Romney candidates. At times it felt like a vigorous competition for third place. Ron Paul is getting a fruit basket for Christmas from the Romney family. He attacked everyone else. He called Santorum corrupt; Santorum returned that he was a liar. Gingrich said the same thing in response to Paul’s claim he was a draft dodger. Perry said a pox on all of them. Had there been a hammock to relax in, Romney might have enjoyed himself a nap.

Though Gingrich and Santorum didn’t go after Romney, they did both turn in strong performances. Santorum seemed comfortable at the center of the stage, an upgrade in placement due to his strong Iowa finish. (At the last New Hampshire debate he re-introduced himself to the moderator during the first break because he’d gotten so little attention, saying he was not a “potted plant.”) Gingrich bashed the media to applause and gave a great answer to a question about Afghanistan, explaining why the larger foreign policy stew is so dangerous. Rick Perry, once known for his dismal debate performances, was on point, repeatedly arguing that his opponents represented Washington and Wall Street insiders. Only a Texas outsider can really fix things, he argued. (Shame this Perry didn’t show up four months ago).

Tomorrow, NBC’s David Gregory hosts another debate. It’s possible that the also-rans held their fire in tonight’s ABC debate because they figured it best to make the harshest case at the last debate, where Romney has limited ability to respond. If they hit him tonight, he would have a chance to clean things up the next day. Or at least that’s what the Romney witch doctors convinced them to think. We’ll see if they can be as successful with the incantations tomorrow.