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Mitt Romney, GOP Frontrunner, Benefits From Toothless Competition

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MANCHESTER, N.H. -- What was supposed to be a Bataan death march of a debate for Mitt Romney on Saturday turned into something of a cakewalk, as none of his nearest competitors -- and none, really, are that near -- chose to take a whack.

Indeed, at one point the moderators managed to do what seemed unthinkable: bring Romney and his most aggrieved detractor, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to agreement, albeit on the issue of anti-Catholic bigotry. At another point, the former Massachusetts governor was able to recite large swaths of his stump speech as everyone else simply looked on.

"Mitt Romney by far and away is the best debater, best advocate for the Republican Party on that stage," proclaimed one of his top surrogates, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "There is no question about it. It's like the varsity playing the junior varsity... Having debated him I know a little bit about that."

Hosted by ABC and Yahoo News, Saturday night's debate was exactly the type of non-eventful affair desired by someone comfortably in the lead in the New Hampshire primary polls and expanding his lead in South Carolina. And it raised the question, yet again, as to whether the rest of the field is wary of attacking Romney head-on for fear of alienating the next GOP nominee or, potentially, president.

All of which is not to say that Romney went unchallenged. Early on in the debate, the conversation surrounded his time at the private equity firm Bain Capital -- a portion of his resume that has been a huge hurdle in past elections. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum accused him of lacking the type of political gravitas to do anything more than manage an economic crisis. Gingrich dug deeper, stating bluntly that he was "not nearly as enamored of a Wall Street model where you can flip companies, go in, and have leverage buyouts."

Romney was ready. "I'm not surprised to have The New York Times try and put free enterprise on trial," he said. "I'm not surprised to have the Obama administration do that, either. It's a little surprising from my colleagues on this stage."

From there, it would be another 85 or so minutes until his economic record was challenged again. And in the spin room after the debate, surrogates for each campaign were left to explain why the gloves were left on.

"He didn't tell me any of his plans so I don't know," Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said of his father's performance. "When he goes into the debates he plans on saying basically the same message he has been saying for a long time. I don't think he goes into it with a tactical strategy that I'm going to go after a certain candidate or anything."

For Romney, it wasn't all luck that he drew a toothless field. Having run for the office before, he is simply better at electoral politics than anyone else in the GOP field. Sometimes, his political acumen gives off the distinct wave of insincerity. Oftentimes, it's a huge asset. The quote one of his advisers pointed to, when asked about the former governor's good fortune, was from the famed golfer Ben Hogan: "The more I practice, the luckier I get."

That certainly seemed to be the case Saturday. Take, for instance, the bizarre exchange between Romney and moderator George Stephanopoulos on contraception and states' rights. At first, Romney pleaded ignorance.

"George," he said, "I don't know whether a state has a right to ban contraception. No state wants to. I mean, the idea of you putting forward things that states might want to do that no -- no state wants to do and asking me whether they could do it or not is kind of a silly thing, I think."

When that didn't work, he pulled out one of the debate's most memorable lines: "Contraception, it is working just fine. Leave it alone."

When a somewhat exasperated Stephanopoulos moved on, he had left unmentioned the fact that Romney once said he would "absolutely" support a "constitutional amendment that would have established the definition of life at conception" -- something directly pertinent to the right of women to use some forms of contraception.

If Romney's skill and good fortune were, in the end, the theme of the night, it's impossible not to note the role played by Rep. Ron Paul. The Texas Republican is, by many counts, the most organized candidate in the race. He polls as close to Romney as anyone else in the field, and has the type of campaign infrastructure to make the primary very interesting. His campaign chairman, Jesse Benton, insisted on Saturday night that they would remain in the race until the convention. They certainly have the money to do just that.

But at Saturday's debate, like all previous ones, the congressman simply aimed his guns elsewhere. As the conversation hovered around Bain Capital early in the debate, Paul was the one who took it off track, charging Santorum with having a "big government" record. And in one of the night's most memorable exchanges, he sparred with Gingrich over his deferments during the Vietnam War.

"When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids and I went," Paul declared after Gingrich explained that he was "married with a child" when the draft came calling.

Benton noted that the Paul campaign was running commercials in New Hampshire that went after Romney for supporting the bank bailout and the individual mandate. But he also conceded that, right now, the campaign is not all that interested in making Romney's life miserable.

"It is pretty clear right now that as far as primary voters go, we are not fishing out of the same pond," Benton said. "People who are comfortable with Mitt Romney want the safe moderate status quo choice. We are trying to consolidate ourselves as the only limited government choice, the only choice that symbolizes real change and shaking up the establishment. We are confident that Mitt Romney voters will get behind Dr. Paul as the nominee, but right now we are not sharing a real broad pool of people."

HuffPost's Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.

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