The GOP candidates pound on Mitt Romney.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Jan. 6 2008 8:14 AM

The Mitt Maul

The GOP candidates pound on their wounded rival.

Find John Dickerson's coverage of the Democratic debate here.

Mitt Romney's rivals don't just disagree with him. They don't like him. At all. Saturday night at the ABC/Facebook debate, almost every candidate took a dig at him. It was not the behavior of pygmies trying to tear down Goliath but of hyenas trying to finish off a wounded wildebeest. Many of the barbs were on the topic of Romney's many position changes, his central liability with voters. When Romney said to Mike Huckabee, "Don't try to characterize my position," Huckabee shot back: "Which one?" McCain cracked wise several times, most effectively (because it'll be replayed on cable a lot) after Romney gave his pitch that he was the change candidate, McCain smiled and said, "Governor Romney, we disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree you are the candidate of change."

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Romney, who trails McCain in New Hampshire, tried to stay above the fray, rebuking McCain for what he called personal attacks, but it probably didn't undo the fact that no one was giving him any respect. There were moments when Romney sounded like a man in complete control of the facts, but I'm not sure those moments of high competence—which he's displayed in previous debates—are that effective in putting the authenticity questions to rest. They haven't so far.

Whether the Republican debate has any impact on the state of the race will come down to which front-runner is hurt by a long public airing of their liabilities, because as much chuckling as there was about Romney's inconstancy there was a lot of talk about immigration, which wasn't good for John McCain.

On balance, McCain probably came out ahead. Romney got off no good shots that could be replayed on local news, which will limit the damage for McCain. Also, McCain was aided by his competitors Thompson and Giuliani. Thompson chimed in during a Romney/McCain exchange over immigration to question Romney about his changing positions. Giuliani got off his best line of the evening saying that Reagan had supported amnesty and that "he'd probably be in one of Mitt's negative ads."

Why the Republican candidates appear to have such issues with Mitt Romney is not exactly clear. The collective animosity goes beyond what would be merely necessary based on the political need to knock him out of the race. Is it Romney's money or that he is using it to fund so many ads knocking his opponents? Is it his looks? They all see Romney as an opportunist and a phony, and we got a chance to see just how much that bugs them. The whole group gets together (minus Ron Paul) for another debate Sunday. We'll see whether they've gotten their Romney issues out of their system or whether now that they've bloodied him they'll be hungry for more. Listen for cackling.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

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