The former Massachusetts governor's rivals sparred with each other but failed to challenge the the now run-away front-runner.
MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The only five men standing between Mitt Romney and the Republican presidential nomination took a walk Saturday night -- attacking each other and the media as the former Massachusetts governor coasted toward the brass ring. If Romney wasn't the prohibitive front-runner before the debate, he is now.
Romney came to the debate threatening to run away with the race, and left the stage just as strong. Maybe stronger. He faced surprisingly little criticism from his flailing rivals, and answered their punches with sharp jabs.
Rep. Ron Paul called Rick Santorum corrupt. Santorum called Paul a liar. Paul called Gingrich a draft dodger. Gingrich accused the media of bias and actually praised Romney for "a good (campaign) message."
Gov. Rick Perry suggested that he would send U.S. troops back to Iraq, prompting disbelieving moderator George Stephanopoulos to all but challenge his sanity: "Now?" the ABC reporter said.
The closest Romney got to making news was opposing the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. He also supported contraception. Yes, contraception.
"Contraception, it's working fine," Romney said. "Leave it alone."
Stephanopoulos was trying to bait Romney into taking a controversial stand on whether states could ban contraception. The former governor took refuge behind the fact that no state is likely to do so, and thus dismissed the question as a "silly thing."
It might have been silly to think that Romney could be stopped in New Hampshire, where polls show him ahead of his closest foe by 20-plus point. It might be silly to think he can be slowed in the South Carolina and Florida, where the race goes next.
"I'm baffled that nobody laid a glove on Romney. Is he the only one who wants the nomination?" former New Hampshire GOP chairman Fergus Cullin said shortly before the debate ended. "Heck, Ron Paul has been doing Romney's dirty work by turning on Santorum."
- Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and "Sexual Orientation"
- Romney: Gaffe Free and Winning
- Paul Spells Out Third Party Strategy: Pressure GOP to Change
The field debates again Sunday, two days before voting here.
Saturday's debate opened with a target on Romney's back and Santorum questioning his leadership chops. "We need a leader," Santorum said. "We don't need a manager." It's part of Santorum's stump speech to claim that Romney's private sector experience makes him more of a technocrat than a president.
Romney replied by suggesting Santorum is a Washington insider who doesn't know better. "I think people who spend their life in Washington don't understand what's going on in the real economy," he said.
When Gingrich echoed accusations that Romney was a ruthless job-cutter in the private sector, quoting a New York Times story, Romney sniffed, "I'm not surprised that the New York Times put free enterprise on trial." He is surprised, Romney jabbed, that his rivals would attack his free enterprise.
The real surprise: Gingrich cited the New York Times, a newspaper many conservatives consider to be liberal-leaning.
Toward the end of the debate, Romney got applause for a long and strong answer about his vision for America. "This election," he said, "is about the soul of America."
As the applause died out, Gingrich was reminded that he has repeatedly said that Romney is the wrong guy to carry the GOP message against President Obama.
"Well, look," Gingrich said, "I think that's a good message."
And with that, Gingrich and his fellow also-rans walked off.
Image credit: Reuters