Going into Saturday night’s debate in New Hampshire, Rick Santorum’s rise might have made him the focal point of the event. Although he had a good night, the real story was the failure of any of his rivals to lay a glove on frontrunner Mitt Romney. Though the evening began with a brutal attack on Romney from Newt Gingrich, it fell flat. From then on, Romney cruised, and the night ended with him looking more like the inevitable nominee than ever.
Santorum sounded strong and confident and he also had help from Newt Gingrich that made the two of them look like a wrestling tag team. Nothing that happened tonight will interfere with his momentum, and he may well do better than expected in New Hampshire and set himself up for a good night next week in South Carolina. But the failure of the GOP field to successfully attack Romney will only strengthen his position as the man who looks like the eventual winner.
Other than a last-minute riposte to Jon Huntsman for his defense of China, Romney avoided attacking the other candidates. Though many criticized President Obama, he was the only one whose real focus was on November.
Other than his embarrassing opening slam at Romney in which he approvingly quoted a New York Times hit piece, Gingrich was back to being the man who rebuilt his candidacy via the debates. But the break since the last one in mid-December was fatal to his hopes. Though he scored consistently, his obvious deference to Santorum showed he’s probably lost hope of winning the prize himself.
Interestingly, the only candidate to attack Santorum was the man who is quickly being displaced by him in the first tier: Ron Paul. Santorum ably turned aside Paul’s comments. But the contest between them looked very much like the battle for the runner-up position. While the long slog to the nomination is far from over, the Saturday night debate made it look as if Romney is about to lap the field.