The ABC debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Saturday night was expected to consist of nonstop attacks on New Hampshire front-runner Mitt Romney. It did not turn out that way. Here are my seven take-aways.
Robert C. O’Brien, who practices law in Los Angeles, was a U.S. representative to the United Nations. He advises former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on foreign policy issues. The views he expresses are his own.
- First, engage Ron Paul at your own risk. Gingrich did, complaining that Paul unfairly called him a “chicken hawk” for accepting a draft deferment as a married man. Paul effectively ended the exchange in his favor by stating he was drafted while married with two kids yet served when called. Rick Santorum argued to Paul that he is, indeed, a true conservative. Paul responded that Santorum had certainly “convinced” a lot of people that he was, but that Paul knew Santorum was really a “big government person.”
- Second, Rick Perry is learning to debate. Although he received little screen time, Perry nevertheless had his best debate performance of the campaign. Clearly aiming at South Carolina’s large veteran and military community, he highlighted his own service as an Air Force pilot. He lambasted President Barack Obama for his massive cuts to the Pentagon, claiming that the cuts put “America’s freedom in jeopardy.”
- Third, Jon Huntsman speaks Chinese. The former ambassador to Beijing will be remembered for being the first major party candidate to speak Mandarin during a presidential debate. The purpose of his foreign language aside was unclear, but the comments ignited some of the funniest tweets of the campaign, especially Mike Murphy’s jab.
- Fourth, Newt Gingrich did not derail Romney. Gingrich was expected to use his time on stage to take on Romney. Surprisingly, he started the battle by focusing on Romney’s time at Bain Capital in a reprise of early attacks on Romney’s business career. This time, Gingrich cited The New York Times as the basis for his charges that Romney made money by laying-off workers. Romney countered that he expected The New York Times and even Barack Obama to put free enterprise on trial, but did not expect it from a Republican like Gingrich. After that exchange, Gingrich went back to his wheelhouse of blaming the debate moderators for media bias and basically left Romney alone.
- Fifth, Santorum desperately wants a two-man race. Accordingly, most of his fire was reserved for Ron Paul’s foreign policy, as he hopes to edge the Texas congressman at the finish. Paul, however, owns his base. It is unlikely that Santorum will pick off any Paul voters. Santorum has to hope that Gingrich and Perry exit the contest before Romney wraps up the nomination with wins in South Carolina and Florida so he can establish himself as a viable rival to the front-runner.
- Sixth, Mitt Romney is a debate pro. From stepping away from his podium to allow Santorum and Paul a straight line of fire as they faced each other during a caustic back and forth, to ignoring the moderator’s last question to give his closing argument to the voters of New Hampshire, Romney showed that he is ready to take on Barack Obama in the fall. The consensus of pundits and folks on the ground in New Hampshire is that Romney had a very good night.
- Seventh, Romney is going to win New Hampshire, and is the clear man to beat for the GOP nomination. The race here, as evidenced by the Manchester debate, is for second and third place. Four candidates — Santorum, Paul, Huntsman, and Gingrich — desperately need the two runner-up slots. A place or show finish may mean the difference between a Wednesday morning news conference or a flight to Charleston.