The Ronald Reagan mantra of "thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican" curiously seemed to benefit only one person at Saturday's Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire: runaway front-runner Mitt Romney.
Jon Hunstsman Jr. apparently insulted Mr. Romney in Chinese (we're still waiting for a ruling from the judges on that one).
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich's attacks on Romney sounded vaguely like an infomercial for The New York Times – hardly the most lauded media source among Republicans. Mr. Gingrich cited the paper's article on Romney's record at the venture-capital firm he founded, Bain Capital, four times in about 30 seconds.
Even the scorched-earth campaign run by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas came nowhere near Romney's doorstep. When Romney deflected a question on the Fourth Amendment to Paul, whom he dubbed the field's "constitutionalist," the two might well have curtseyed.
So why did no one bother to take on Romney Saturday night, in what might have been their best opportunity to do so before the New Hampshire primary Tuesday?
Congressman Paul's national campaign chairman might have said it best: “Mitt Romney’s not fishing from the same pond as us," Jesse Benton told Politico. "We’re fighting to consolidate ourselves as the lone Romney alternative, the anti-Romney.… We’re the only candidate with the fundraising base, and we’re the only candidate with a national organization, and right now, I think we’re starting to show that we’re the only candidate with the election results to be able to do that.”
The fact is, the field seems to have come to the conclusion that Romney is untouchable in New Hampshire. He leads Paul by 22 points (39 percent to 17 percent) in the most recent poll by Suffolk University, with former Sen. Rick Santorum a distant third at 9 percent.
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.
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."