Compilation of analysis and reaction to tonight’s GOP debate from New Hampshire

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This debate was a very weird exercise. Mitt Romney looks to be on the verge of wrapping this race up pretty early. He won Iowa; he’ll almost certainly win New Hampshire by a big margin; and he now looks positioned well to pull off a convincing, if not overwhelming, win in South Carolina. If so, he’ll be the first Republican to do that in like forever. And he’ll have gone a long way toward showing he can compete with GOP electorates in three key regions of the country.

And yet, Mitt Romney was almost totally absent from this debate. Yes, he said a few things. And he got his core messages across pretty well. But Romney himself was totally absent from the discussion. It was the individual candidates (besides Romney) attacking each other; or the individual candidates getting distracted by moderators’ questions which — whatever their merits — didn’t take the argument back to core issues relating to Romney; or the individual candidates making passable but not terribly effective arguments for themselves.

If you’re Eric Fehrnstrom or the other folks in the Romney operation you just love that. Because Romney is far in the lead. And this kind of result is really the best you could hope for. The entire evening read like the other candidates are either resigned to Romney’s expanding lead or were simply unaware of it.

Here’s a transcript from the debate.

Michelle Cottle: Early on, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum went at one another like two jacked-up Pit Bulls. Despite his passion, however, Santorum came across as whiny. (Maybe he was unsettled without his sweater vests.) And the senator’s off-camera interjections when Paul was speaking made him come across like a kid mouthing off in class or a puppy nipping at the congressman’s wizened heels. By 10:30, it was hard not to want to change channels and find out what was happening on MTV’s “Teen Mom 2.”

Ron Fournier: Romney came to the debate threatening to run away with the race, and left the stage just as strong. Maybe stronger. He faced surprisingly little criticism from his flailing rivals, and answered their punches with sharp jabs

Daniel Horowitz: Let’s face it: the ABC News New Hampshire debate was the worst debate of the entire election cycle.  And that is saying something, considering the sheer volume of debates.  How many years and election cycles will it take before Republicans learn to turn to conservatives as moderators for presidential debates, instead of washed up Democrat hacks disguised as journalists?

Dave Roberts: Obama went into general election in 2008 toughened by brutal warfare w/ Clinton. Romney’s going in w/ the world’s biggest glass jaw.

Nate Silver: “My quick react debate grades: Romney A, Huntsman A-, Paul B, Santorum C, Newt C, Gingrich C.”

National Review: Rick Santorum was probably the winner of the debate. He didn’t prevail because he had any great lines or any particularly memorable confrontations, but because this was his chance at center stage, and he looked knowledgeable and comfortable. He left a good impression. If some people were on the look-out for an extremist, they didn’t see that in Santorum.

NY Times: Going in ready to be a piñata, Mr. Romney avoided most of the harshest attacks that his advisers might have expected.

Pete Spiliakos: I really hate Romney’s “This election is about the soul of America for the Declaration of the pursuit of happiness and exceptionalism so as not to be like Europe of a President who doesn’t understand America” spiel.  It is just so phony-thematic.  Coming from a different politician (Jindal, Daniels, maybe Marco Rubio) who had laid out the policy differences and the real life consequences of our choices, a less hysterical version of that argument might actually be powerful.

Andrew Sullivan: Romney sailed through this one, although he is digging into positions and rhetoric that really seem extreme for the center. Maybe I’m biased, but I thought Paul was a stand-out, because he didn’t seem to be pandering. His fight with Gingrich over the draft was, to my ears, devastating. Huntsman did fine, and I devoutly wish his saner, calmer conservatism would prevail. But he has an awful tin ear. Slipping into Mandarin to answer Romney on China? Like his idiotic decision to insult Iowans, it’s just incompetent rhetoric and politics. His sensibility worked in Utah, the way Perry does in Texas. But he has been unable to break out as a national candidate.

Santorum is such a vile person it is hard for me to judge his performance. But he seemed to me to come off as the prize asshole he is: nasty, extreme, reactionary, callous. Perry was irrelevant. But his bid to send troops back to Iraq was insane; and yes, he did say that Iran would literally move at the speed of light into Iraq. It reminds me of the wonderful quote from a former Palin spokeswoman who said that the world was “literally her oyster.” Ewww.

My gut tells me that Paul may gain strength in the ornery independent state in the next few days. And Romney’s decision to leave New Hampshire this week may have been an error. But I know the odds are now perishingly thin that Romney can be stopped. And Newt balked at going for the real jugular.

But the real lesson of this debate is that this crew is the worst assembled for the nomination of a major party.

Ken Tucker: “Saturday night’s Republican debate on ABC found the six men on a New Hampshire stage railing against gay marriage, “the media’s war on religion,” and President Obama’s “social welfare state.” Mitt Romney also emphasized that we need to be reminded that we have “the right to pursue happiness.” And by invoking happiness, he wasn’t trying to act as a prime-time lead-in to Saturday Night Live.”

Dave Weigel: Romney’s response to the first good economic report since the iPhone 3G was new is that Barack Obama can’t take credit for it. “It’s like the rooster taking responsibility for the sunrise.” A bit hard to imagine that playing for months if the economy actually recovers.

Matt Welch: So, let me answer everyone’s question (why isn’t anyone attacking Romney???) with uninformed speculation. This is a weirdo reverse-campaign, which is to say people not named Romney are not running to win, they’re running to not be kicked off the island. When it’s a race to stave off being thrown off the lifeboat, you look for some fingers to step on. Right now there are basically three slots available — the Romney slot, the Ron Paul slot, and the not-Mitt-who-isn’t-Ron-Paul slot.

Will Wilkinson: Romney, I thought, clearly dominated. He repeatedly took charge and rhetorically “won” exchanges in which his argument was the weaker.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.