MANCHESTER, N.H. – Speaking frankly, few things happened in last night’s GOP presidential debate that would seem to alter the inevitability of a Mitt Romney win here in Tuesday’s primary. In fact, a strong argument can be made that it was perhaps Romney’s best performance yet, garnering a debate victory on merits, not merely by default.
Barring a major Romney gaffe, most observers were watching the debate to see who would challenge Congressman Ron Paul for second place, which was a more interesting aspect of the nearly two-hour exchange. A respectable second and maybe third place finish behind the former Massachusetts Governor for former Sen. Rick Santorum or former Speaker Newt Gingrich could translate into fundraising opportunities and grass-roots momentum leading into the next round of primary contests, which will take them to more conservative-friendly terrain.
For Paul, New Hampshire will likely be the final place in which his civil libertarian message will keep him in the top tier of the GOP field, but local political experts I talk to expect Paul to perform extremely well in the Granite State. Jack Heath, a prominent conservative radio host in the state, predicts Paul will gain nearly 20 percent of the vote. This would be problematic for every candidate on the stage striving to be the “anti-Romney,” other than Texas Gov. Rick Perry who is not actively competing in New Hampshire, focusing instead on South Carolina.
This parallel race for second created many hostile exchanges between Paul and his counterparts. Paul’s more cantankerous and direct engagements were with both Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. They all traded barbs that mainly served to further elevate Romney, which surely was an unintended consequence of the race for second place. It also deflected some of the incoming fire that is usually aimed at the front-runner. Romney was faced with fewer and less severe attacks than most had anticipated, but he managed to handle them with the poise of a true front-runner.
As Republican strategist Brad Card, who is a seasoned veteran in New Hampshire politics described, “there was no sustained attack on Gov. Romney and any attempt seemed to be crushed by the governor’s stature as the recognized front-runner.”
Also after tonight, it also appears the candidates in pursuit of knocking Paul off his perch will likely be unsuccessful, though their strong efforts could very well make a third place finish equally valuable.
Standing at center stage for the first time in a debate, Rick Santorum reaffirmed his strength as a capable, articulate and more strictly conservative alternative for those looking for one. He certainly embodies all the attributes of a populist conservative and positions himself well as a candidate who can effectively win votes among the traditionally blue-collar and politically valuable Reagan Democrats.
Described to me by one political insider as a proverbial “powder-keg waiting to explode,” Newt Gingrich avoided allowing his deep frustration with his failed Iowa effort at the hands of attacks from a Romney-friendly Super PAC to get the best of him. He returned to the basic strengths that helped effect his rise into the top tier by demonstrating his intellectual and political knowledge, though he was given noticeably less time to do so. Additionally, Newt’s real conundrum is that, while he is most interested in targeting Mitt Romney, his most direct competitor is Rick Santorum, who he inevitably must battle to consolidate conservative support behind his campaign.
While candidates like Huntsman and Perry had good nights, they were relegated to the cheap seats at the edge of the stage, and both men have already been marginalized by political realities outside this debate. For Huntsman, a poor New Hampshire finish should spell the end of a campaign that was laser-focused on winning the state. Many local political insiders feel Huntsman has a chance to best Gingrich for a fourth place finish, but that wouldn’t be enough to rationalize a path forward for the former ambassador to China and governor of Utah.
New Hampshire voters have historically prided themselves in playing the role of contrarian as hosts to the “first in the nation primary,” though this year the Republican front-runner in the state also holds that distinction in the context of the overall race. But as has traditionally happened, a candidate who over performs in New Hampshire can turn that into a meaningful development for the campaign going forward.
Unlike the mantra in the Will Ferrell comedy “Talladega Nights,” which insists, “If you’re not first, you’re last,” in primary politics a good second or third place could very well spark a campaign.
Tony Sayegh is a Republican campaign consultant, political analyst and national correspondent for Talk Radio News Service. He appears regularly on Fox News, Fox Business and weekly on FoxNews.com. You can e-mail Tony at firstname.lastname@example.org