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New Hampshire Republican debate: Why isn't Ron Paul attacking Mitt Romney?

The New Hampshire debate Saturday was marked by a conspicuous lack of attacks on front-runner Mitt Romney, even from flamethrower Ron Paul. That Republican debate strategy might not work for Romney's challengers long-term.

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That dynamic has made the race a battle for second place. “Whoever comes out of New Hampshire No. 2 will be able to call it a victory, because Romney is running against his own expectations,” Wayne L’Esperance, a political scientist at New England College in Henniker, N.H., told the Monitor's Gail Russell Chaddock Saturday.

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The most incisive moments of Saturday's debate came as Paul took his blowtorch to Gingrich and Mr. Santorum – his top rivals for the No. 2 slot both here and beyond.

First, he cast Santorum as a "big spending Republican" who could hardly lay claim to the title conservative, citing Santorum's decision to vote for increases in the debt limit during his time in Congress. Santorum parried well, saying that "conservative" was not synonymous with "libertarian" and raising questions about the credentials of an organization that labeled him "corrupt."

Paul seems to have gotten the better of Gingrich, though, in an attack on Gingrich's military service, which marked the only moment of raw emotion on the night. Gingrich gave an impassioned defense of his record, saying he was an "Army brat" who grew up in a military family. He did not serve in the military in wartime, he said, not because he got a deferment, but because he was married with a child.   

Paul, who served as a flight surgeon, responded: "When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids, and I went."

But it is unclear how all this fighting among the undercard does anyone but Romney any good. Paul has perhaps the most to gain. With views on foreign and economic policy considered by many experts to be too far out of line with Republican orthodoxy to win the nomination, he is competing for influence and ideals.

A No. 2 finish anywhere would be a good result.

But for Santorum and Gingrich, seemingly the only establishment figures with a chance of unseating Romney for the nomination, fending off Paul's attacks was not the most profitable way to spend the night.

"It can be easy to neglect Mr. Romney in New Hampshire, oddly enough, because he is so far ahead in the polls," writes polling analyst Nate Silver at the FiveThirtyEight blog. But "what I thought resulted for Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich was close to the worst of all possible strategic worlds. Neither candidate did much, either substantively or stylistically, to appeal to New Hampshire voters. But both spent only brief amounts of time attacking Mr. Romney, their biggest long-term problem."

At some point before crucial primaries in South Carolina (Jan. 21) and Florida (Jan. 31), one of the two will have to stop Romney's momentum. Last night didn't help, Mr. Silver suggested: "The end result could be a reasonably clear victory for Mr. Romney in South Carolina, at which point he would be well on his way to the nomination."

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