New Hampshire Debate Blitz Last Real Chance to Derail Romney

by Ryan Sanford Smith

Saturday night’s GOP debate in New Hampshire is looking increasingly like the most important so far and will go a long way in etching the positions of the remaining contenders into stone. While the New Hampshire race itself is all but decided, with Mitt Romney continuing his frontrunner status with a  20-point lead over Ron Paul, who finished third in Iowa–but the two debates this weekend, a mere ten hours apart, will offer a crucial opportunity not only in the looming contest in the social-conservative stronghold of South Carolina, but the rest of the primary season. That opportunity is to throw a boulder onto the tracks of the Romney campaign, which may lack much luster but persists on towards the candidacy with an unflappable calm that may be Romney’s largest asset at this point.

With the debates falling only two days before the New Hampshire contest, and South Carolina eleven days later, there will be little to no chance to mitigate any damage should  scathing rhetorical attacks or gaffes pop up on the center stage.

Mitt Romney’s primary goal will be to keep the ship steady. His persistence rests in both the moderate conservatism that the other candidates continue to attack, and his presidential demeanor. While he doesn’t flash in the debates, he’s managed to deflect or absorb most attacks without stumbling over his own feet, and that’s all he needs to do tonight and tomorrow. Romney can even afford to take a few shots across the bow–his lead is large enough that all he needs to do is avoid any critical hits, probably coming from the direction of Newt Gingrich, and he’ll waltz through the upcoming contests, probably wrapping up the GOP season by February.

Rick Santorum is enjoying a bit of a surge out of his narrow second-place showing in Iowa, though one should consider how impressive it really is for a hard-line social conservative to do so. While Santorum is finally receiving his turn at the not-Romney slot in the field and the accompanying increase in exposure, he’s also suffering from it–his support for extreme Catholic moral positions, such as the idea that contraception is destroying the country and that gay marriage will utterly rend the fabric of the family unit, will continue to isolate him not only in the larger GOP climate but will forever bode ill for his appeal in the general election that he’ll never see. His appeal will see a bit more cheering in South Carolina, but other than that his moment in the limelight appears that it’ll be as short as the other flavor-of-the month surges.

Much has been made about what we might see out of Newt Gingrich, whose debate performances have all but defined his various surges up to this point. There’s no questioning his political experience and rhetorical shrewdness will pay some dividends yet again coming out these debates, but he more than anyone needs to walk a fine line in targeting Romney. If Newt comes out swinging too hard, he’ll score the appropriate blows, but risks sacrificing a similar Romney-esque appeal of a sort of relaxed confidence; if he comes across as desperate or rabid he’ll net a loss and will have missed his last real chance to return to the elite tier of the current GOP spread.

Ron Paul looks to continue in his usual role of what I’ve termed ‘distant prominence’–it allows him the luxury of some time in the spotlight and his share of applause, but he doesn’t look to have much opportunity in these debates or the near future to gain much more support. While much is being said about Romney’s apparent ceiling among GOP voters, Ron Paul has essentially made a career out of campaigning from an even lower one. This offers him a bit of luxury–he’s more safely positioned than anyone to really target Romney and Santorum with every scathing bit of the arsenal he has at hand. It’d be interesting to see him pull ammunition from his libertarian stances and take apart Santorum’s dogmatic treatment  of certain personal liberties, though I doubt we’ll see much of this, as Paul knows this would detrimental, to some extent, to his own base. He’s wise to consolidate discourse around his main applause-points and take what swipes he can along different lines.

Rick Perry  faces a daunting situation–after a confusing (confused?) turn-around after Iowa, where he stated he was returning to Texas to ‘reassess’ his campaign, he came out less than 12 hours later to say the fight was back on. He shows no more than the most minimal support in any of the upcoming primaries and with two rapid-fire debates standing as the last real opportunity to recharge the various campaigns, Perry faces a spotlight that has been very unkind to him, with several poor performances and gaffes dissolving his previous surging support almost literally overnight.

Jon Huntsman has staked nearly everything in New Hampshire, and last I read he’s going to be lucky to break into double-digit results. While at times awkward and baffling, Huntsman has also offered some of the most reasoned and coherent thoughts on both the economy and foreign policy. One sort of feels that this is simply too young in his political career to be attempting a serious run at the candidacy–he simply isn’t known. His assured, relatively poor showing in New Hampshire would seem to all but end his campaign, which I think will be to the detriment of the rest of the season and the remaining debates, as I think he offers a certain freshness and balance. I would expect we’ll see Huntsman again in 2016 and with a much more prominent showing.