I'm not sure I saw the same debate as other observers tonight, as the consensus seems to be that the shots against Mitt Romney helped McCain and sank Romney. In the debate I was watching, the entire field looked stunningly childish and every candidate looked like a schoolyard bully going first after Ron Paul, and second after Mitt Romney. The entire field was diminished and Mitt Romney half of the time looked like a bullied kid and half of the time like the only adult of the room, as he managed to keep his calm and a very straight-face.
The attacks Romney were, plainly put, insults. It is well known that his rivals -- especially McCain -- hate Romney more than anyone else. And that was fully on display tonight. Even when the attack was roughly based on substance, John McCain's wide grin and Rudy Giuliani's very loud laugh betrayed how much they were enjoyed the Romney-bashing. McCain had the most one-liners against Romney, and all of them were performed with a very strange grin. His one-liner that's likely to be the most quoted occurred after Romney described Obama as a change candidate, to which McCain answered: "Governor Romney--we disagree on many things, but you are the candidate of change."
The most revealing moment occurred in the first half of the debate. After Romney said "You know, you're not correctly characterizing my position..." Huckabee interrupted, "Which one?" And Giuliani was then heard saying "Oooooh..." Yes, that's right. "Oooooh..." The GOP debate had sank into a middle-school classroom.
And the dynamic continued throughout the night. It dominated the exchanges and made actual debating very difficult. It seems that the candidates had forgotten that the voters do not necessarily share their hatred and disdain. They might dislike or mistrust Romney, but the man still gets 30% of the vote and it's not necessarily obvious to voters why people keep laughing so loudly any time someone says something about Romney.
The night had started well for Mitt Romney. The first thing ABC's anchors talked about past 9pm was Romney's win in Wyoming -- ensuring that everyone watching knows about it. And in the first 15 minutes, the targets were most and foremost Ron Paul (who went after America's imperialism and got every candidate screaming at him, trying to show they were the most un-Paul candidate) and Mike Huckabee, who was asked to defend his assertion that Bush's foreign policy was an arrogant bunker-mentality.
The debate centered on two domestic issues: Immigration and health care. And Romney was at the center of both. He started the discussion on health care strong, as he was the only one who had something concrete to say as he talked about the very precise Massachusetts plan. But he then considerably weakened as Thompson hit him on individual mandates, which can't be too popular among the GOP base. And then Romney was pushed to a seeming inconsistency over whether he would implement his state plan on the federal level -- he tried to explain that he would let it be a state-issue with federal incentive but he was clearly stuck under Thompson's questioning and did not clearly articulate his response.
On immigration, it was John McCain who was in difficulty at first as this is clearly the issue because of which he collapsed in the spring. Romney repeatedly criticized his answers as being a form of amnesty. And Romney's pressing was putting McCain in a bind when Thompson intervened once again and explained that Romney himself was far from clean on this issue and that both Giuliani and Romney were much more moderate on immigration a few years ago than they are today.
As is obvious from these moments of policy-discussion, Mitt Romney was certainly not a clear victor tonight. The point I am trying to make is merely that the personal insults that occurred so regularly throughout the debate diminished everybody -- and John McCain's sitting with a satisfied grin certainly did not help him. Throughout the first half of the debate, McCain looked absent as he did not jump in the discussion without being prompted at all and his seat put him physically in the periphery. The second half put him more at the center when the discussion shifted to immigration.
Mike Huckabee started on the defensive on foreign policy and had to be satisfied that the focus shifted to Mitt Romney. He is the winner of the Iowa caucuses, but he came out tonight mostly unscathed as his rivals were not interested in shooting him down given that he does not look like to much of a threat in New Hampshire. He got an opportunity to introduce himself to voters nationally, many of whom were probably taking a serious look at him for the first time.
Did the debate change the dynamics going into Tuesday? Romney looks to have fallen behind in the polls, but he was attacked like the front-runner today. He might not have managed to move enough people back his way, but John McCain did even less to secure his position on top of the polls. One of the main dynamics in New Hampshire is whether independents choose to vote in the GOP race or in the Democratic, and John McCain desperately needs as many of them as possible to choose to vote in his party's primary. Independents who tuned in tonight probably did not see the kind of serious discussion that might convince them to jump to McCain's camp.
The analysis is cross-posted on the author's blog, at Campaign Diaries.