By NANCY BENAC, ASSOCIATED PRESS
WASHINGTON — In the 11 days since Mitt Romney tried unsuccessfully to leave the rest of the GOP field behind in New Hampshire, the presidential race has served up a scattershot cast of angels and demons as the candidates try to strike a chord with different slices of the electorate.
Capitalism was in, then out, then in again. Insurance companies got a sideways sympathetic nod. Mike Huckabee and Betty White proved to have some cachet. The press was an ever-popular whipping child.
Europe and entitlements, felons, food stamps and French: All were on the outs with one candidate or another.
Newt Gingrich even ran an ad faulting Romney for his language skills: "Just like John Kerry, he speaks French," it warned ominously.
The GOP challengers went after Romney's venture capitalist credentials with a vengeance – most memorably when Texas Gov. Rick Perry rebranded him a "vulture capitalist" – then eased up somewhat when they caught grief from the defenders of free enterprise.
For a little while, even insurance companies – typically a popular target for politicians of any stripe – got a little love after Romney said he liked the idea of being able to fire them for poor performance. The other candidates summoned a chorus of outrage at the notion that Romney would relish firing anyone.
Republican strategist Terry Holt said it all adds up to "a blizzard of buzz words" as candidates try to deliver a headline-grabbing quote that will get people's attention.
But does it work?
"Ultimately, it all blends together into a general sense of the candidate," says Holt. "The back-and-forth is lost on most people."
And there's been a lot of back-and-forthing.
Romney and Gingrich both ran ads trying to claim a little luster from popular conservative Huckabee by rolling out nice things he'd said about them. But it turned out Huckabee hadn't endorsed either of them, and both got a scolding from the former Arkansas governor.
President Barack Obama, watching the GOP race from the sidelines, had to be hoping that a little of Betty White's uncanny popularity would rub off when he taped a video piece for her 90th birthday in which he joked that the actress looks so good she should cough up her long-form birth certificate to prove she's really that old.
The GOP candidates trotted out plenty of reliable enemies – "Obamacare," federal regulations, big government, the Dodd-Frank financial regulations – but added some new ones to the mix as well.
Gingrich, catering to South Carolina sensibilities and its port communities, singled out the Army Corps of Engineers, complaining in Thursday's debate that the corps "takes eight years to study – not to complete – to study doing the port. We won the entire Second World War in three years and eight months."
Candidates' messages zig-zagged all over in search of a winning line that would work with voters.
Earning money was good – except if your name was Mitt Romney.
A super PAC supporting Gingrich made a half-hour movie attacking Romney for reaping "massive rewards for himself and his investors," complete with sinister music and a baritone-voice narrator.
Romney defended his capitalist credentials by lining himself up with the philosopher known as a father of capitalism, proudly announcing, "Adam Smith was right."
Perry managed to turn the news that U.S. troops had apparently been captured on video urinating on corpses in Afghanistan into an indictment of the Obama administration. The Texas governor accused the Obama team of piling on against "kids" who sometimes make "stupid mistakes."
It didn't do him much good: He was out of the race within days.
Then came the issue of infidelity: Gingrich chose not to comment on the details of his marriage to his second wife after she claimed that he'd asked her for an "open marriage" in which he could have both a wife and a mistress.
Gingrich managed to steer that conversation to the one enemy that all the candidates love to beat up on: the media.
"I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country," he declared.
But even rival Rick Santorum saw through the tactic, urging voters not to be swept away by Gingrich's blast at the press.
Republicans should "get past the glib one-liners, the beating up of the media, which is always popular with conservatives," Santorum said.
Democratic strategist Karen Finney said the Republicans' random list of friends and foes has emerged as candidates "try to pick off pieces of the Republican electorate" with very targeted appeals that will add up to an overall win in each primary or caucus state.
"The narrative is shifting based on the audiences they're speaking to," she said.
"There's always, `Who's the good guy and who's the bad guy,'" she said.
In this campaign, that lineup changes every day.