Republican rivals tried to put venture capitalism—and its poster boy Mitt Romney—on trial at the ABC debate, amplifying charges by the Democrats that the former governor was a serial job killer.
But the attempt petered out. The night’s big loser, in fact, was Rick Santorum, who didn’t have a single memorable moment and forfeited the chance to build on his virtual tie in Iowa before a national audience. For all the talk of Angry Newt, meanwhile, he barely took a shot at Romney, though he did let Ron Paul get under his skin.
With three days to go before the New Hampshire primary, the buzz in the cavernous press room at Manchester’s Saint Anselm College was that this is a lackluster primary, meaning Romney is likely to win in a walk. That’s why his rivals were determined, even desperate, to change the dynamic Saturday night.
Santorum kicked off the assault on Romney by saying that a manager isn’t necessarily qualified to be commander in chief. That rebuke prompted a Romney rejoinder that folks who spend their life in Washington “don’t understand what happens out in the real economy.”
But then Romney had to fend off a slam from Newt Gingrich, who repeatedly cited The New York Times—I thought he didn’t like the media—in accusing Mitt of slashing tens of thousands of jobs for profit in his Bain Capital days. Romney’s response was a corporate classic: it “pains me” to downsize, of course, but he created tons of jobs at places like Staples. (Moderator George Stephanopoulos rightly dinged him for claiming credit for Staples jobs that materialized after he left Bain.)
What’s telling about this turn is that Republicans generally sing the glories of unfettered capitalism. But with the nomination at stake, several were willing to trash Romney for pursuing precisely that form of capitalism, which inevitably means that some companies thrive while others go belly-up.
Despite the flurry of punches, Romney emerged with barely a scratch. Everyone knows he was a hard-nosed businessman who got wealthy flipping companies; that’s the essence of his candidacy.
The undercards in this match—Ron Paul vs. Gingrich, Ron Paul vs. Santorum—were far nastier and actually drew blood. That obviously reflects the fact that the battle for second place is the real war here, one that may determine who survives to challenge Romney in South Carolina and Florida. Gingrich and Santorum each want to be the anti-Mitt, and Paul (now running second in New Hampshire) is just his ornery self.
Thus we had the unedifying spectacle of Paul calling Newt a chicken hawk for avoiding military service, Gingrich saying he didn’t seek the deferments when he was married with kids, and Paul saying he was married but served anyway. Gingrich angrily retorted that Paul slings false facts and “just slurs people.”
And when Paul said Santorum was a “big government conservative” of the corrupt Beltway variety, the former senator accused him of repeating a “ridiculous charge” from the “left-wing organization” CREW.
The ABC moderators tried to stir up trouble on gay marriage, contraception, and same-sex adoption, but the candidates offered a fog of verbiage about federal and state responsibilities, while Gingrich tried to turn the conversation to anti-Christian bias.
As the debate wound down, Santorum said he could appeal to blue-collar voters—reading one of his talking points—but wrapped it in a laundry list of things he’s opposed (health-care mandates, cap and trade, on and on). But blue-collar voters respond to blunt language, and Santorum didn’t speak that language—leaving Romney where he began the evening, on the verge of winning his second straight 2012 contest.