CONCORD, N.H. -- If you think this debate is fun, wait for the 3 p.m. Spike TV debate in Dartmouth!
9:05: This is the throat-clearing "stuff I said on the campaign trail" section.
9:08: Romney's explanation of why he didn't run again, that he had basically achieved everything he needed in four years, sounds an awful lot like what "George H.W. Bush" said in the Simpsons episode where he moved into Springfield.
9:09: Gingrich, finally given some encouragement to attack, takes it in the snippiest possible way. "You think the red light doesn't matter to you because you're the frontrunner," he says to Romney. And for some reason a discussion of whether Mitt Romney's a wimp because he didn't run in goes to 10 minutes.
9:16: Ah, the game makes sense: It's an effort, pretty successful, to take the talking points Romney has constructed over the past year. (No one much bothered during the long period when other people were surging and getting the flak. "I was criticized last night by Mitt Romney for putting my country first," snaps Huntsman. "He criticized me while he was out raising money."
9:17: And the Romney campaign sends out an old campaign press release, one that didn't even matter much at the time:
9:28: You can almost watch the blood flowing back into Newt Gingrich's extremities. He's been denied a campaign stage for four weeks, unable to prove how much more he knows, how much cleaner he can cut through stupid media frames.
9:36: Can someone explain to me why Santorum needs to continue pointing out that Ron Paul is an ineffective legislator. We know this. His nickname is "Doctor No." His weakness, from the GOP voter's perspective, is that he inserted earmarks into appropriations bills, then voted against them, claiming that he was only making sure that money was appropriated constitutionally. But the fact that he didn't pass bills? This is his selling point. Stop mentioning it!
9:42: Somebody, please, grab Jon Huntsman by the tie and tell him to stop telling the tale of his incredible 2004 press conference. 1) You gave a press conference and talked about ethics? This doesn't tell me whether or not you followed through. 2) In 2012, when I hear "press conference," I think of somebody admitting a bunch of wrongdoing before Gloria Allred calls him on it.
9:52: No follow-up after Santorum says, of a gay son: "I would love him as much as I did the second before I said it." I understand why he gets the question, but whether a politician has a gay relative is immaterial to whether he -- oh, I'll pick one example -- would reinstate Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
10:04: "Dust [regulation] in Iowa is an absurdity," says Gingrich.
10:19: I want to see the transcript, but I believe Romney just claimed not to have seen the Super PAC ads running against Gingrich -- a common thing you can tell a reporter to dodge a response to something new -- and then referred to "the ad I saw."
10:23: That was truly bizarre. If Romney has no control over these confusing, newfangled Super PAC ads, why does he have such specific thoughts about what they contain? Maybe it felt like a clever twist -- it's always nice to repeat a negative ad with a captive audience -- but it was hard to listen to without pondering the wrongness of the Super PAC system.
At this point I should say where I am -- at a Patch.com brunch affair across the street from the debate itself. State Rep. Kent Howard, who smelled more strongly of cigarettes than anyone I've met since 1997, assured me that the Romney exchange went great for him. "If someone runs an ad for me, I can't say anything about it!" he said. "Not that anyone would do that in a state rep race. Although, having said that, I'm probably the only state rep who had a full-page ad taken out against him in the Union Leader."
10:38: And it's over. Let's remember how we entered the debate.
Romney's the frontrunner in New Hampshire and can start to end the race by winning South Carolina.
I suppose there are a couple other factors, but that's the big one. Where do we end up?
- Perry has raced up the evolutionary ladder from "worst debater in the history of the English language, and we're counting Middle English" to "mediocre debater." He still has at least $3 million. He is flying to Spartanburg to campaign for the January 21 South Carolina primary. Doing well enough to stay in, being the only candidate with the anatomy to call Obama a "socialist," is on the whole good for Romney.
- 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. Instead of getting pissed off about Ron Paul impugning his military courage (the lack thereof), Gingrich was baiting Romney into a discussion of amoral Super PAC candidate assassination. 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. (Paul will not stop Santorum from any rise in South Carolina.)
Some weakness for Romney, but more importantly, consistency from all the guys cannibalizing the conservative vote.