The Republican Debate Doubleheader, Part 1

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In the first of two back-to-back debates, a bizarre free-for-all in New Hampshire leaves hardly a scratch on Mitt Romney's shiny veneer.

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MANCHESTER, N.H. -- On the debate stage at Saint Anselm College Saturday night, more candidates went aggressively after Ron Paul than Mitt Romney. There was more discussion of whether birth control should be legal than foreign policy. And one candidate suddenly broke into Chinese.

It was a bizarre spectacle that underscored the seemingly unshakable state of play as the primaries march on: Mitt Romney is alone at the top, unperturbed, as a writhing gallery of inferiors wrestles, rather inexplicably, for second place. And in just a few hours, another debate is scheduled, at 9 a.m. Sunday.

Here, a few of the debate moments that captured the night:

1. Whiffing on Mitt. The debate kicked off with the moderators serving up silver-platter opportunities for Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman to attack Romney on whether his work as a corporate executive hurt workers. Both basically declined, endorsing the idea of examining Romney's record without actually offering their own criticism. Gingrich: "That was, I think, the New York Times story two days ago." Huntsman: "Well, it's part of his record, and therefore, it's going to be talked about."

2. Santorum vs. Paul. Paul's campaign ads have been the most brutal of the season, and when asked whether he stood behind the attacks expressed in them, he didn't back down. He accused Santorum of being in bed with lobbyists while he was in Congress, and then becoming one when he got out; Santorum said it wasn't true. But the fascinating part of the exchange was the core dispute between Paul, the libertarian anti-statist, and Santorum, the legislator of morals -- possibly the purest philosophical polarity among all the candidates. "Ron, I'm a conservative. I'm not a libertarian. I believe in some government," Santorum said. Paul: "You're a big spender, that's all there is to it. You're a big-government conservative."

3. Gingrich vs. Paul. The bad blood between these two goes back to 1996, when Paul sought to reenter the House after a hiatus and Gingrich, then speaker, backed a Democratic party-switcher in the GOP primary instead. Paul, an Army vet who opposes most military intervention, was asked to repeat his recent description of Gingrich as a "chicken hawk," and he did: "I think people who don't serve when they could and they get three or four or five deferments, they have no right to send our kids off to war. I'm trying to stop the wars, but at least I went when they called me up." Gingrich: "The fact is, I never asked for a deferment. I was married with a child. ... I personally resent the kind of comments and aspersions he routinely makes without accurate information." Paul: "When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids. And I went." Applause.

4. Romney forgets his case law. The question, from moderator George Stephanopoulos, was this: "Governor Romney, do you believe that states have the right to ban contraception, or is that trumped by a constitutional right to privacy?" The case in question, a landmark in Supreme Court history and a crucial precedent to Roe v. Wade, is on most introductory constitutional law syllabi, but Romney proceeded to act as if it were a totally unfathomable hypothetical. "George, this is an unusual topic that you're raising," he said. "I can't imagine a state banning contraception." After a bit of this, Stephanopoulos interjected, "Hold on a second, governor, you went to Harvard Law School." It wasn't quite clear where Romney finally came down. He said he believed Roe v. Wade was decided incorrectly and there is no right to privacy implicit in the Constitution, but got laughs when he exclaimed in exasperation, "Contraception, it's working just fine! Leave it alone!" In the end, Romney seemed flustered by what should have been a routine question, but he succeeded in making it seem like a bizarre distraction -- and in obfuscating his personal view.

5. Santorum makes his pitch. In his biggest moment in the spotlight, he didn't come across as a social-issues zealot, handling a question on gay marriage in a way that certainly wouldn't please proponents but didn't make him seem like a vengeful theocrat. It was late in the program, but he also managed to get in an anti-Romney message while making his pitch for swing-state electability: "I was not ever for an individual mandate. I wasn't for a top-down, government-run health-care system. I wasn't for the big-bank Wall Street bailout, as Governor Romney was.... If you want someone that's a clear contrast, that has a strong record, that has a vision for this country that's going to get this country growing and appeal to blue-collar workers in Pennsylvania, in Ohio, in Michigan, in Indiana and deliver that message, that we care about you too, not just about Wall Street and bailing them out, then I'm the guy that you want to put in the nomination."

6. Perry practically disappears. The Texas governor who almost dropped out after Iowa is spending his time in South Carolina, so perhaps it was fitting that he faded into the woodwork in the New Hampshire debate. Except for a couple of off-key remarks: He said he wanted to "send troops back to Iraq," because if we don't, "we're going to see Iran, in my opinion, move back in at literally the speed of light."

7. Huntsman in Mandarin. It might have been the zenith of his bottom-dwelling campaign: The former Utah governor merited an attack from the front-runner. But then it quickly became the nadir. Romney criticized Huntsman for "implementing the policies of this administration in China" when "the rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this administration from being put forward." Then he talked tough on China. Huntsman's response: "I think it's important to note, as they would say in China, that --" and with that, he broke into Mandarin. The press corps in the filing center burst into disbelieving laughter, then groped for words to describe the off-kilter moment. There weren't any.

Image credit: Reuters/Mike Segar
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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