Saturday night and Sunday morning. Two back-to-back Republican presidential debates featuring the same cast, the same issues, the same New Hampshire setting, and the same basic format. Yet despite a separation of only 10 hours, the events felt as different as night and day.
Saturday's debate on ABC was largely about the inability of Mitt Romney's competitors to lay a glove on him. As if protected by an invisible force field, Romney managed to deflect the incoming artillery that pundits had predicted for him. For reasons known only to his rivals, Romney got a free pass from the five men who need to knock him off his perch.
Sunday's debate on NBC, by contrast, had a much sharper tone, especially in the opening and closing segments, when Romney found himself in the hot seat, particularly from a visibly pissed-off Newt Gingrich. At times in the Sunday debate, Gingrich appeared to be overcompensating for his previous night's reticence, cramming as much criticism as he could into the confines of a tightly structured debate. With less vitriol, Rick Santorum also sought to burst Romney's balloon by pointing out the ludicrousness of the former governor's claim to be a political outsider. This provoked a rare moment of testiness from the normally unflappable Romney, who does not like to be interrupted: "Rick... Rick... I'm talking here," Mitt protested.
Throughout these joint appearances, the Romney strategy has been transparent and consistent: to position himself against President Obama, not the pygmies flanking him on the stage. This approach has succeeded because Romney's competitors never figured out how to dethrone him. In Sunday's Meet the Press debate, the others finally managed to drag Mighty Mitt off his pedestal. At this point, however, their efforts may amount to too little, too late.
Going negative is always a risky proposition in a campaign debate. But with Romney looking increasingly inevitable as his party's nominee, it is mystifying why the competitors did not use these weekend match-ups to more effectively highlight the chinks in his armor. Perhaps each candidate was waiting for one of the other guys to step up and play dragon-slayer. Or maybe, at the end of the day, none of his rivals has the chops to take Romney down.
Over the past few months Rick Santorum has shown himself to be a debater of above average ability, but he has not mastered the art of making his point succinctly and then shutting up. Like many pols, he is enamored of the sound of his own voice, and the more he talks the more he has a tendency to over-share. Although he seems able to get under Romney's skin, he is not clever enough to capitalize on this potential asset. At the two New Hampshire debates Santorum appeared to lack an overall game plan; it never became clear in either instance what he was trying to accomplish. Though more aggressive on Sunday than on Saturday, Santorum may have let his best opportunity for stopping the Romney juggernaut slip by.
Newt Gingrich was widely expected to be the bomb-thrower in these debates, a destiny he fulfilled with vigor in the second event. Yet Gingrich came across as more interested in settling personal scores than in helping voters reach an informed decision about whom to vote for. In going mano-a-mano with Romney, Gingrich may have damaged himself as much as the Republican front-runner.
Jon Huntsman missed his chance to ding Romney in Saturday's debate, but on Sunday he did strike back at Romney's assertion the previous night that Huntsman was wrong to have served as President Obama's ambassador to China. Huntsman's dressing-down drew blood: "This nation is divided because of attitudes like that," he scolded Romney, to audience applause. It's a moment that Obama re-election headquarters will want to take note of.
Ron Paul is too quirky a candidate to go for the jugular, and even when he does score a point he almost always fouls up the victory lap by veering off on some tangent or other. Oddly, both Gingrich and Santorum spent a good bit of time needling Ron Paul in the New Hampshire debates, even though their focus ought to have been on Romney.
As for Rick Perry, at this stage of the campaign Perry feels so disconnected from the rest of the field that he may as well be beaming himself in by satellite from a remote, undisclosed location. In both debates his sporadic contributions felt grafted onto the conversation, rather than growing organically out of the rhetoric onstage. Perry's half-baked platitudes have become so predictable and so irrelevant that they serve as cues to debate viewers that it's time to run to the kitchen for a beverage refill.
Too little has been said about the role of journalists in this year's presidential debates, but the back-to-back New Hampshire events illustrate the importance of a moderator who (a) has firm control of the event and (b) knows how to craft a question. David Gregory accomplished both goals admirably in the Sunday debate, while Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos did not. For Sawyer, it takes a paragraph to say what could be said in a sentence, and at one point her lack of preparedness with a specific question for Romney allowed the candidate to lapse directly into his stump speech. Stephanopoulos got booed for doggedly pursuing a hypothetical about whether the Tenth Amendment might allow states to outlaw contraception. Romney sensibly rejected the question, but rather than accepting that response and moving on, Stephanopoulos gnawed at the issue like a dog with a bone. The booing of journalists by debate audiences has become cheap and predictable, but in this case they had a point.
In the final analysis, did New Hampshire's weekend double-header change anything? Not particularly, though it did serve to raise the public profile of Mitt Romney's career at Bain Capital. There may also be a downside for Romney in emerging relatively unscathed: he is not getting the sort of general election debate toning that Barack Obama got from Hillary Clinton in 2008. Tougher competitors in the primaries would make Romney a tougher candidate next fall.