The knives were out against Mitt Romney from the opening moments of this morning’s Republican presidential debate and for the first time, his rivals actually drew blood, writes Taegan Goddard. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum took on Romney’s claims that he wasn’t a “career politician” even though he’s been running for office since 1994.
Romney’s weakest moment was suggesting that only rich people should run for office by citing his father’s advice to him: “Mitt, never get involved in politics if you have to win an election to pay a mortgage.” He then bragged about his unsuccessful attempt to unseat Ted Kennedy: “I was happy he had to take a mortgage out on his house to ultimately defeat me.”
In the end, however, the debate was probably more about the race to finish second to Romney in New Hampshire. Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Jon Hunstman, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry all had decent performances but none had a breakout moment that should substantially change the results of Tuesday’s primary.
More analysis and reaction:
John Avlon: Jon Huntsman had his best debate right on time–two days before New Hampshire votes.
Jonathan Bernstein: While he took some hits, [Romney] showed again that he’s become pretty good at this; in most cases, he deflected them and continued on without much noticeable damage. … Presumably few watched either debate this weekend, so the real question is how the spin goes, especially on news outlets New Hampshire and South Carolina voters will be watching. But as a guess, it’s hard to see that anything changed, which is of course just fine with Mitt Romney.
Alexander Burns: The tone was markedly different from Saturday night’s debate, as the candidates seemed to realize that absent a direct confrontation with Romney — who’s far ahead in polls for Tuesday’s primary — he would be well on his way to claiming the Republican presidential nomination.
E.J. Dionne: Romney was utterly unpersuasive when he used faux innocence to try to explain why he didn’t run for reelection as governor of Massachusetts in 2006: “Run again? That would be about me.” I am not a cynic. I do believe politicians are motivated by more than just raw personal ambition. But the notion that a candidate is not at least partly “about me” is absurd. Of course Romney is partly about me — as are all of God’s flawed creatures. The notion that he didn’t run for reelection just because the campaign would have been about him is simply not credible. It was a great gotcha moment when Rick Santorum puckishly asked Romney if this meant that he would not run for reelection as president. Romney was so emphatic in saying he would seek reelection that he undercut his entire point.
Matthew Dowd says as soon as Romney clinches the nomination, “He’s going to turn and become the Massachusetts moderate again.”
Jim Fallows: What makes Ron Paul’s presence on the debate stage so galvanizing — in human and dramatic terms, entirely apart from his policies — is the apparent absence of any “how will this go over???” filter between his brain and his mouth. You ask him if he thinks Newt Gingrich — standing a few feet from him — is a “chickenhawk,” and he’ll say, Yes, I hate people who didn’t serve but want to start wars. Ask him if he thinks the other politicians are “corrupt,” and he’ll say, Yes these guys over here, they are.
Joe Klein: There was a reason for Romney’s success–and it pains me to disclose it: he was well-prepped by his consultants. His answers were clear, concise, declarative sentences. None of the other candidates seemed to have been prepped at all. They had their moments, but their sentences were clumsy, loaded with jargon and dependent clauses. Their message was garbled, their attacks muddy. They seemed amateurs. Romney is a professional.
Doug Mataconis: Many of the attacks [against Romney] didn’t seem to me to be on issues that really mattered … Rick Santorum got into an extended exchange with him over why he didn’t run for re-election as Governor in 2006, for example, and Newt Gingrich got into an argument with Romney over SuperPAC ads that Gingrich claims were incorrect. Jon Huntsman, meanwhile, took the opportunity to strike back at Romney for criticizing him for accepting the President’s request to serve as Ambassador to China, making a point about serving ones country that got applause from the audience.
National Review: Both Gingrich and Romney look petty and a bit childish in this exchange about their attack ads, Super PACS, heated rhetoric, etc. Both also look like everything people don’t like about politicians. It is a low point for both of them, not just for this debate, but for any of these debates that have so dominated this campaign.
Ken Tucker: Between Perry’s meaningless “socialist” tag to Romney’s repeated use of the phrase “career politician” to characterize Obama, the divisions between the Republican candidates were never so great that they lost sight of their prime goal: To keep invoking the insult of their choice for the President, fervently hoping that by sheer repetition on TV, the insult would transform into fact for many viewers. It’s an old tactic, but sometimes it works.
Dave Weigel: Gingrich, who was left out in the cornfield last night with odd, random questions, was fully engaged and had anger directed toward a real purpose. … It went well for him. So he stays in the race. Santorum did just fine, but he and Ron Paul continued to attack each other in a debate equivelent of the cartoons that run before a main feature. Sure, Santorum scored on Romney, too, but his essential self-confidence trips him up in debates — he cannot let a point go even if the person making it is, in the long run, irrelevant to him.