12:38 AM, Jan 8, 2012 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
And that’s true. Romney won Iowa; polls show him leading here in New Hampshire and in more challenging South Carolina; he’s got a well built campaign organization; and he may well have more money than the other candidates combined. He’s not yet inevitable, as some would suggest, but he’s closer after a strong debate performance.
But the conventional wisdom is only half right. Romney also won because his answers were the best and he set the tone early.
The debate opened with the ABC moderators doing what they could to instigate some attacks on Romney – offering opportunities for attack to Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman. The only one who took the opening was Santorum, and he engaged rather tentatively, explaining that the country doesn’t need a “manager” like Romney at this time of crisis. It’s a good line of criticism, one that implies caution in this time of national urgency. But Romney turned it around deftly.
“People who spend their life in Washington think that people who start businesses are just managers,” Romney said in response. “The people in the private sector, who are, every day, making this country a stronger nation and hiring people, they're not successful because they're managers, they're successful primarily because they are leaders. I wish people in Washington had the experience of going out and working in the real economy first, before they went there, and they'd understand some of the real lessons of leadership.”
When his turn came, Gingrich partially defended an ad/mini-film by a pro-Gingrich PAC attacking Romney for job losses when he was at Bain Capital. Gingrich, who apologized once before for attacking Romney on Bain, said he hadn’t seen the film or the ad derived from it. But the man who has attacked the mainstream media in virtually every debate thus far, noted several times that the film was consistent with recent reporting in the New York Times.
Romney adroitly turned the argument back on Gingrich. “I'm not surprised to have the New York Times try and put free enterprise on trial. I'm not surprised to have the Obama administration do that, either. It's a little surprising from my colleagues on this stage.”
Huntsman also took a shot. Romney’s response was almost dismissive, filled with praise Huntsman’s record as governor. (There was a time when Team Romney was very concerned about Huntsman. No longer, it seems.)
Three shots, three misses. And Romney didn’t just avoid the hits, he turned each one of the attempted attacks to his advantage. Perhaps this explains why Romney was the target of so few challenges the rest of the evening.
The person with the most to gain tonight was Rick Santorum. Rick Perry is done. Jon Huntsman doesn’t matter. Newt Gingrich is still sliding. And Ron Paul is . . . Ron Paul.
Coming off a near win in Iowa, and apparently surging in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Santorum could have established himself as the only real alternative to Romney with a strong debate performance. Instead, he was just fine—not terrible, by any means, but not great either.
He allowed himself to be drawn into too many exchanges with Ron Paul, a tactic that was smart when he was at 3 percent in the polls and debate moderators weren’t giving him much time, but one that is now unproductive as a potential leading candidate. Santorum had what would have been the line of the night had it come in a fight with a candidate of greater consequence. After Paul cited the U.S. Navy rescue of Iranian sailors as the proper way to handle our conflict with Iran, Santorum pointed out that if a President Paul were running U.S. foreign policy, “there wouldn't have been a fleet there to pick up the Iranian fishermen.” Good line, but little impact. (Earlier, Santorum allowed himself to be drawn into a debate with Paul over the Texas congressman’s allegation that Santorum is “corrupt,” thus spending several moments telling voters that he is not actually corrupt.)
In some ways, the candidates debated the moderators more than each other. Gingrich smacked the ABC moderators for a series of peculiar questions that reflected “news media bias”—an effective attack only diminished because he uses it in every debate. Romney seemed utterly perplexed by George Stephanopoulos’s attempts to get him to discuss contraception and the Constitution, and at one point later in the debate he, too, chastised the moderators.