The non-Romney Republicans had ten hours to stew over their abject failure to lay a glove on the Mittster in Saturday night’s lackluster prime-time debate. Nudged on Sunday morning by moderator David Gregory, who launched the proceedings by asking the aggrieved Newt Gingrich to make an argument against Romney’s electability, they came out with guns blazing at the Meet the Press debate. But it was almost certainly too little, too late, to bring down the frontrunner.
Romney’s ludicrous pretense of being a non-politician was deflated at last, as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich ganged up on him effectively. When Santorum asked why Romney didn’t run for re-election as governor of Massachusetts, given his great passion for improving the state, Romney revived his hoary rhetoric: “Politics is not a career. My life’s passion has been my family, my faith, and my country.” Gingrich parried: “Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney? The fact is, you ran for Senate in 1994 and lost … you were running for president while you were governor. You’ve been running consistently for years and years. Just level with the American people. You’ve been running at least since the mid-1990s.”
Jon Huntsman, who was far more effective than usual, lit out after Romney as well. Responding to Romney’s criticism of Huntsman for accepting an ambassadorship under President Obama, the former Utah governor said: “I was criticized last night by Governor Romney for putting my country first. I will always put my country first.” Just like, he said, his two sons serving in the Navy under a Democratic president.
Romney struggled to respond. “I think we serve our country first by standing for conservative principles…”
Huntsman: “This nation is divided, David, because of attitudes like that.” It was as close to a Lloyd Bentsen-on-Dan Quayle moment as the many GOP debates have delivered.
While Romney came under belated fire in the first 15 minutes, he was largely unscathed for the remainder of the debate. Santorum was again more eager to go against Ron Paul, who’s been running second in the New Hampshire polls, noting that in Congress, “Congressman Paul has never passed anything of importance. He’s been out there on the margins.” But while he’s ineffective at promoting economic ideas that Republicans like, Santorum said, as commander-in-chief Paul would be able to accomplish the things—troop withdrawals, most notably—that Republicans don’t like.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, desperate to make an impression, followed up his Saturday-night promise to send troops back to Iraq by flatly declaring on Sunday: “We have a president that’s a socialist.” He also managed to work in all three departments he would eliminate, prompting vigorous applause from the other candidates, while working in the magic words, “Tea Party,” as often as humanly possible.
Huntsman summed up the proceedings well: “Everybody’s got something nasty to say.” But while there was heat, there was precious little light on issues of substance. The candidates’ responses to the few foreign-policy questions were pat and jingoistic. (Who’d a thunk?) Once again, it was clear that the only solutions to the jobs crisis, among this entire field, involve overturning Dodd-Frank and Obamacare and pretty much all regulations on business, along with what Gingrich called “massive deployment of American energy.”
One of the most unintentionally revealing moments on Sunday morning came when Romney was fumbling to defend his claim to being a non-politician. His father, he said, gave him some sage advice: “Don’t get involved in politics if you have to win to pay your mortgage.” The clear implication: You shouldn’t run for office unless you are securely wealthy. The Obama team was no doubt jotting that statement down, licking its collective chops in anticipation of running against the reflexively patrician Republican.
But by the end of the debate, Romney was mildly bruised at best. While his non-career-politician rhetoric was punctured, the anti-Mitts didn’t manage to do the equally easy thing: take the air out of his claim to be a consistent conservative. He continues to benefit from the size of the field, and from the others’ intramural squabbling to be his ultimate foe. With Santorum’s New Hampshire campaign sputtering, and Perry and Gingrich both investing their hopes in South Carolina—where the conservative vote will again be divided—a weak frontrunner continues to float toward the nomination.