The Republican Debate Doubleheader, Part 2

Romney experiences some turbulence in a Sunday-morning debate where the candidates are on their game.

BEDFORD, N.H. -- The question after Saturday night's debate was why Mitt Romney got such a free ride. Debating again just 10 hours later on Sunday morning, some of Romney's rivals attempted to step up the pressure on the front-runner and managed to draw him into a mildly damaging scrape. Most of Romney's rivals also shone in their own right; Jon Huntsman had his best performance yet, as did Rick Perry. Here are a few moments to remember from the last debate before the New Hampshire primary:

1. Romney gets tackled. On the very first question, Newt Gingrich made the case that Romney would be a weak general-election candidate: "The bigger the contrast, the bolder ideas, the clearer the choice, the harder it is for [Obama's] billion-dollar campaign to smear his way back into office." Relatively mild stuff, but the perfect intro for Rick Santorum, who upped the ante: "If his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts, why didn't he run for reelection? You didn't want to even stand before the people of Massachusetts and run on your record." Romney responded that he ran "to make a difference," not to have a political career. That's when Gingrich got off the best line of the debate: "Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney? The fact is you ran in '94 and lost."

The one-two punch of Gingrich and Santorum, who like each other and have complementary styles, put Romney on the ropes. His comeback was strange: He said his father told him not to "get involved in politics if you have to win an election to pay a mortgage," implying that only wealthy people should run for office. And he said he never expected to beat Ted Kennedy in that 1994 race, just to give him "a real battle." That's an assertion that would surely come as a surprise to anyone who witnessed the Senate race in question.

2. Jon Huntsman's breakout. Huntsman picked up a thread from the night before to jab back at Romney, who had dinged him for serving in the Obama administration. "He criticized me while he was out raising money for serving my country in China. Yes, under a Democrat. Like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. ... I will always put my country first." When Romney replied that conservatives ought to oppose Obama, not support him, Huntsman replied: "This nation is divided because of attitudes like that." It was the best job he's done at making his centrist vision accessible and relevant.

3. This Rick Perry would have been a real threat. He was, for the most part, articulate and quick on his feet -- a good debater not just by the lowered standards of his previous debate performances but by objective, universal standards. He hammered his outsider message and Tea Party appeal, even declaring at the end that he believes the president to be a socialist, without the disorienting stammering or disastrous mental lapses that have plagued him in the past. It's probably too late for Perry, but a performance like this makes his last stand in South Carolina a more plausible effort.

4. Santorum vs. Paul, again. On Saturday night, moderators baited Paul into attacking Santorum. On Sunday, Santorum chose to go after the Texas congressman. Why do this when Romney ought to be the one the undercard is gunning for? Well, Paul's unconventional ideology presents an easier target; he's not as good as Romney at wriggling out of criticism and punching back at his attackers; and his second-place standing in most New Hampshire polls may be thanks to soft support from voters who don't know much about his record beyond his massive amount of slick TV ads. Nonetheless, it was odd to see Romney fade from view for the entire middle third of the debate.

5. A tolerant tone on gay rights. Santorum has faced a lot of questions in New Hampshire about his stance on gay marriage. But faced with a question on gay rights Sunday, he sounded a tolerant note, saying he would "make sure every person in America, gay or straight, is treated with dignity." Asked what he would say to a son who came out, he said, without a moment's hesitation, "I would love him as much as I did the second before he said it and would try to do everything I can to be as good a father as possible." Santorum is never going to win support from the gay community, but answers like these make it harder to caricature him as a vengeful homophobe, and could make it easier for social moderates to open their minds to his candidacy.

See also: "The Republican Debate Doubleheader, Part 1"

Image credit: Getty Images/Alex Wong