New Hampshire GOP debate best yet, but who won?

The Sunday New Hampshire GOP debate was the opposite of the one the night before, with candidates attacking Mitt Romney – and at least one setting himself up well for races to come.

Charles Krupa/AP
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (l.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spar during a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, N.H., Sunday. Charles Krupa

Wow, that was fun. The Sunday morning “Meet the Press” Republican debate may have been the best such confab yet. Perhaps the pressures of time and circumstance drove all the GOP hopefuls to perform as well as they could. Iowa has already voted, and New Hampshire is looming. At this point in the race, it’s go big, or go home.

Who won? Well, the headline here may be that this is also the first debate in which Mitt Romney may have suffered substantial damage. Newt Gingrich must have read reviews from the first New Hampshire debate, held Saturday night – many judged he’d gone easy on the party front-runner. So in the first seconds after the bell rang Mr. Gingrich, among other things, charged that Mr. Romney needs to drop the “pious baloney” that he’s not a professional politician. Things degenerated from there.

“You happened to lose to McCain [in the 2008 presidential race], as you lost to Kennedy [in a 1994 Massachusetts Senate bid]. You’ve been running consistently for years and years. You’ve been running since at least the 1990s,” said Gingrich to Romney. The audience then broke out in applause.

Romney got his own licks in, though. He waited until almost the debate’s end. Gingrich was attacking over alleged misrepresentations of him in ads from a pro-Romney super political-action committee (PAC). Mitt took this as an opportunity to simply tick off some of the worst aspects of Newt’s record.

“The ad I saw said you had been forced from the speaker’s office. That was correct,” said Romney. And so forth and so on.

It’s our belief that neither Romney nor Gingrich won the debate, however. At this point, Romney is just holding on in New Hampshire – he’s lost ground four days in a row in Suffolk University’s state tracking poll, and is now down to a 15-point lead over second-place Ron Paul. Gingrich was very entertaining on the attack – besides “pious baloney,” he called the Environmental Protection Agency “increasingly imperious” – but rhetorical swordsmanship does not a statesman make, and at this point he’s far down in New Hampshire polls.

No, we think Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman Jr. together “won” the Sunday morning set-to. Nate Silver, New York Times polling analyst, thought so too – he tweeted that former Senator Santorum’s performance should win him an “A-," and Mr. Huntsman’s an “A.”

Santorum may have helped himself the most in terms of political positioning. He seemed passionate and articulate, without veering into the hectoring tone he’s been known to adopt. He emphasized the importance of blue-collar workers and family and parried tough questions about his vote to establish Medicare’s prescription drug program, and his stance on gay rights.

On that last issue, he managed to make it through without comparing gay marriage to polygamy, as he’s done in the past. He was asked how he’d react if a son of his said he was gay – an easy question masquerading as a tough one. Santorum did not whiff.

“I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it, and I would work to be a good father to him,” said Santorum.

The importance of Santorum’s performance does not deal with New Hampshire, per se. Rather, at a time when many conservatives are looking to rally around a candidate to oppose Romney, he did much better than Rick Perry or Gingrich, and thus increased his chances of becoming the consensus social-right choice.

Huntsman, for his part, is now at the crucial point of his entire run. If he does not do well in New Hampshire, it is hard to see where else he can make any inroads. And in recent days the state may have seen something of a Huntsman wavelet, if not a surge: Suffolk University now has him in third, behind Romney and Paul, at 11 percent of potential GOP voters. Double digits! Whoo-hoo!

Throughout Sunday’s chin wag, Huntsman projected himself as the adult in the room, the one who knew Americans are tired of divisiveness and political anger. When Romney once again questioned the propriety of his service as ambassador to China in the Obama administration, Huntsman parried with this: “This nation is divided because of attitudes like that.”

It won him applause, and might get him the post of chairman of the board of a high-minded D.C. nonprofit, but will that appeal to GOP primary voters? We’ll see, and we’ll probably see that it won’t. But in this wild season, every candidate in the race has had their day, and perhaps Huntsman’s is coming.

Oh, and what about Ron Paul? We’re not ignoring him – please Paulites, hold those e-mails – but on Sunday he was his usual self, depicting everyone else on state as a big-government spender in small-government clothing. He’ll do well in New Hampshire, a flinty state, but for him the real test will come when the race swings into the big primary states of South Carolina and Florida.

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