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Romney Mediocre, Santorum Strong, Gingrich Mixed

11:56 AM, Jan 8, 2012 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Concord, N.H.
If Mitt Romney survived—even thrived—in the Republican debate Saturday night in Manchester, his rivals succeeded in attacking him less than twelve hours later in Concord. On Sunday morning, both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich may have done damage to Romney with their critiques. The attacks were not race-changing hits, but they nonetheless highlighted Romney's vulnerabilities in the GOP primary and in a general election if he wins the Republican nomination. 

Romney Mediocre, Santorum Strong, Gingrich Mixed

Although Gingrich pulled back a bit from claims by his campaign that Romney is “unelectable,” he made a strong case that a consistent conservative will provide a greater challenge to Barack Obama by providing a stark contrast in the general election. Rick Santorum argued that Romney chose to “bail out” on his state after just one term rather than running for reelection to consolidate his policy victories.

For the most part, Romney chose not to answer the challenges directly, opting instead for saccharine—and unpersuasive—talking points about his dedication to public service, saying he ran not to further himself but to improve the country. “Citizenship has always been on my mind.”

Gingrich pounced, calling on Romney to cut the “pious baloney,” to the evident delight of reporters in the press filing center.

Like Saturday, that early exchange set the tone for the rest of the debate, with Gingrich and Santorum building on those successful attacks to establish themselves once again as the chief threats to Romney’s supposedly inevitable nomination.

When the moderator asked the candidates to cite three examples of the sacrifices they’ll ask the American people to make in this time of crisis, Santorum answered directly: means test Social Security and block grant food stamps and Medicaid, sending them back to the states.

Later, Santorum gave a very strong answer in response to a question on gay rights, calling for arguments on policy issues to be debated with “dignity and respect” even when the differences are profound. And in one of the debate’s few truly memorable moments, he parried a hypothetical question about his son coming out with a direct and seemingly heartfelt answer. “I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it.”

Santorum was even better on Iran. When Gregory pressed him on why we can’t live with a nuclear Iran, Santorum argued that a theocratic state that holds martyrdom as a virtue can’t be deterred. And asked why the same isn’t true for Pakistan, Santorum noted that Pakistan is not yet a theocracy and that the United States is working hard to keep it that way. Overall, it was a strong debate for Santorum.

Gingrich, too, did well throughout most of the debate, demonstrating a depth of policy knowledge unmatched by anyone in the race. It wouldn’t be a GOP debate without Gingrich challenging a question from the moderators and Sunday was no different. When Gregory asked how Obama should deal with a Republican party that wants him to be a one-term president—an allusion to comments from Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell—Gingrich dispensed with the line questioning: It’s the job of the opposing party to work to remove a president they do not agree with. But Gingrich's successful attacks early in the debate were compromised later in a discussion about Bain Capital and the role of super PACs. Gingrich once again pointed to the New York Times as the authority on Bain and suggested that the issue is fair game. He continued to maintain that he didn't know much about the substance of the Bain film bought by the pro-Newt super PAC, but nonetheless cited several media outlets that the film relies on to prosecute its case—making his denials rather unconvincing.

Jon Huntsman had far more time in the NBC/Facebook debate than he has had in any of the others, perhaps a reflection of the fact that he is rising a bit in New Hampshire polls. He didn’t do much with the extra opportunities, furrowing his brow and returning to his staple lines on “leadership” and a “trust” deficit rather than laying out in any detail his solutions. He cited the Wall Street Journal’s praise for his economic plan—an understandable move—but neglected to explain what the policies are and how they would work.

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