HANOVER, N.H. -- Tuesday was Mitt Romney's night. The former Massachusetts governor entered the ninth GOP debate riding a long, fortuitous wave of positive news. His nearest competitors for the nomination had crumbled amid missteps or mismanagement. Prospective candidates had declined to launch bids of their own. One of them, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, even gave Romney an endorsement hours before the debate at Dartmouth College began. And if all that wasn't advantageous enough, the setting for the forum was in a state that Romney owns -- New Hampshire -- and on a topic that he should dominate: the economy.
In what increasingly resembles a seamless path to the Republican presidential nomination, Tuesday night showed that another feature has become predominant in Romney's ride of fortune and political finesse. None of his competitors seem capable of landing a punch.
As one adviser to a rival campaign stated before the debate: 'He's got a glass jaw but no one will hit it."
Tuesday night's Bloomberg/Washington Post debate proved no different.
Perhaps no moment was as emblematic as the debate's climactic, penultimate feature: a session that allowed each candidate to address a question to a competitor. Romney received four questions and either skillfully dodged or was granted an easy out in each instance.
After promising a "very penetrating question" for Romney during a radio interview earlier in the day, businessman Herman Cain chose one without much bite.
"Can you name all 59 points in your 160-page [jobs] plan, and does it satisfy that criteria of being simple, transparent, efficient, fair, and neutral?" he asked.
Romney replied with a smile: "Herman, I have had the experience in my life of taking on some tough problems. And I must admit that simple answers are always very helpful, but oftentimes inadequate."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was next. Earlier in the night he had called for Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) to go to jail for ethical improprieties. He had demanded Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's firing and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's sacking. But when he had an opportunity to jab the Republican frontrunner, he prefaced his question with a kiss.
"Governor Romney," Gingrich said, "I'd like to say, first of all, there is an awful lot in your plan that is very good, and that I think would be very helpful if implemented, a lot better than what Obama is doing."
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman was a bit less gentle, accusing Romney of "destroying jobs" while at the private equity firm Bain Capital. But he stepped on his line by making a you-could-hear-a-pin-drop joke about attacks on their shared religion, Mormonism.
In desperate need of a sharp contrast against the frontrunner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry took his turn, pressing Romney to explain how his health care plan wasn't the inspiration for President Obama's when even Romney's advisers have said it is. It was a useful jab. But not a well-executed one.
"I'm still speaking," Romney barked back as Perry tried to interrupt his answer. "We -- we have -- we have less than 1 percent of our kids that are uninsured. You have a million kids uninsured in Texas. A million kids. Under President Bush, the percentage uninsured went down. Under your leadership, it's gone up. I care about people." Moments later, Perry was invited by the debate's moderator, Charlie Rose, to make the argument again. He ended up, instead, defending Texas' own system.
The soft touches and poor punches were a dominant feature of the night, and they are increasingly dominating the Republican primary itself. Romney isn't just a head and shoulders above his competitors in terms of running for national office -- at one point, Perry complained that "Mitt's had six years to be workin' on a [jobs] plan, I've been in this about eight weeks" -- he's the rarest of candidates: a frontrunner who takes on no water.
The sharpest jabs he faced all night may have come from Huntsman's daughters on Twitter.
The Christie endorsement, meanwhile, has Republicans more or less expecting a cake walk nomination.
"Christie coming on board with Romney starts to lock in the inevitable--especially with Florida screwing the pooch by moving its primary," emailed former RNC Chairman Michael Steele. "Trust me Christie does not make this move--especially a week after saying he wouldn't--without knowing (or at least sensing) it's time... [W]ith Christie out there talking up Romney it confirms that whatever 'movement' was left for Perry has stopped; that all of the movement towards Cain is not taken seriously."
If the debate didn't demonstrate that reality, the lead-up to it did. Over the past two days, Perry was absent from actual campaigning, as he hunkered down with aides to try and improve upon his past lackluster debate performances. Cain did not campaign either. The businessman turned poll-climber remains low on cash and actual on-the-ground campaign infrastructure. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) traveled to New Hampshire aboard a regional jet. A Joseph A. Bank suit bag in tow, and with his son serving as his lone (unpaid) aide, he proudly copped to having done no debate prep work.
“I’ve never done one in my entire political career," he told the Washington Post's Phillip Rucker. “I try not to script it at all.”
Huntsman, who has staked his campaign on a strong showing in the Granite State (so much so that he moved his campaign headquarters there), gave a major foreign policy speech on Monday. But the majority of questions he faced concerned attacks on his religion from a Perry supporter as well as his stagnant poll numbers.
"We are not going to be there long because you add a little bit of air cover to that and aggressive campaigning in every corner of the state," he said, outside an event at a retirement center in Hanover, which, one Republican joked, seemed like an emotionally symmetrical setting for his campaign. "We will go up. That's the way these things go."
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's campaign bus rolled into Hanover on Monday night to some fanfare. But the congresswoman was nowhere to be seen. An aide said she was out jogging.
All of which is not to say that Romney's coast is clear. As DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz noted before the debate: "Mitt Romney clearly has some real issues when it comes to the average Republican voter... there is a reason that he has been capped at 25 or 26 percent."
On Tuesday night, moreover, Romney faced the first sustained hard questioning over his support for the bank bailout -- legislation that, perhaps as much as Obama's health care law, riles the conservative base.
"No one likes the idea of a Wall Street bailout. I certainly don't," Romney explained. "There is no question but that the action of President Bush and that Secretary Paulson took was designed to keep not just a collapse of individual banking institutions, but to keep the entire currency of the country worth something and to keep all the banks from closing, and to make sure we didn't all lose our jobs. My experience tells me that we were on the precipice, and we could have had a complete meltdown of our entire financial system, wiping out all the savings of the American people. So action had to be taken. Was it perfect? No. Was it well implemented? No, not particularly. Were there some institutions that should not have been bailed out? Absolutely."
The answer, which managed to frame the TARP as necessary while pitting Romney against it, practically begged those on the stage to lash away. But the first thing that Cain mustered was: "I agree with Governor Romney" (Cain supported the bailout as well.) And Perry chose to leave his retorts to the campaign operatives running his email account. The one candidate who was champing at the bit to cause a bit of drama (to play the role of foil that then Sen. Dodd did with Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in 2008) was left waiting for future moments.
“I didn’t get much of a chance to do sparring, it’s hard when they don’t give you a, when they don’t put you in the ring," Santorum said after the debate was over. "I forced myself in on a couple of occasions to make some comments. They’ll be other days for hopefully Governor Romney to have to be on stage with a more limited audience on the dais, but right now I’ve got to show that I’m the most electable conservative in the race. “
Alex Becker contributed reporting