Despite the anticipation that his GOP rivals would tear into him during last night's debate in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney emerged from the festivities largely unscathed, focusing his fire on President Obama while leaving the dirty work of criticizing other candidates to the rest of the field.
The same could not be said for Romney's two main rivals in New Hampshire, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. There were several charges and countercharges between the two while Newt Gingrich, who was expected to savage Romney, barely laid a glove on the former Massachusetts governor.
New York Times:
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."
A prolonged exchange broke out between Mr. Paul and Mr. Santorum, who are battling to be the leading alternative to Mr. Romney on Tuesday and beyond. At one point, a microphone on the debate stage echoed loudly, and Mr. Santorum tried to lighten the moment. "They caught you not telling the truth, Ron," he said with a smile.
The deeper scrutiny of Mr. Santorum, following his strong showing in Iowa last week, clearly benefited Mr. Romney early in the debate. Mr. Romney stood comfortably above the fray, watching during a period of sharp squabbling as Mr. Paul attacked Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich, and Mr. Santorum attacked Mr. Paul.
Paul's major debate point against Santorum - that he is a "big government conservative" - was countered nicely by the former Pennsylvania senator:
"You're a big-government conservative," Mr. Paul told Mr. Santorum, referring to his votes for the No Child Left Behind Act during George W. Bush's presidency and Mr. Bush's Medicare prescription drug benefit. "To say you're a conservative, I think it's a stretch, but you've convinced a lot of people of it."
Mr. Santorum shot back: "I think I've convinced a lot of people of it because I think my record is pretty good," adding, "I'm not a libertarian, Ron, I agree with you. You vote against everything; I don't vote against everything."
While it probably won't defuse the issue entirely, Santorum's stance against gay marriage and abortion has made him the darling of the religious right, which makes Paul's critique seem hollow.
What the debate revealed was that there appears to be a general agreement that Romney has New Hampshire in the bag and that the real fight will be for second place and the perception that the runner up in New Hampshire will be the alternative to Mitt in South Carolina. The other candidates largely held their fire against Romney, preferring not to waste face time on TV criticizing a candidate who is probably going to win by 20 points or more.
Another debate is scheduled for Sunday morning on NBC's Meet the Press.