Twenty years ago, Bob Dole slipped up in a debate on the Saturday night before the New Hampshire primary — he refused to sign a “no new taxes” pledge — and saw the momentum from his Iowa triumph promptly fizzle out, handing a campaign-saving come-from-behind victory to George H.W. Bush.
Mitt Romney, whose once overwhelming New Hampshire support is collapsing in the wake of his poor Iowa showing, entered tonight’s debate in dire need of a similar stumble by John McCain, whose resurgent candidacy could extinguish Romney’s with a victory in three nights.
He didn’t get it.
Romney and McCain engaged in an extended colloquy over immigration, one of several issues on which Romney moved sharply to the right at the start of the campaign and then used to attack McCain as insufficiently conservative.
After McCain, questioned by one of the moderators, defended his immigration reform initiative, Romney launched into his familiar attack, accusing McCain of supporting “a form of amnesty.”
McCain replied by invoking Joe Lieberman, and noting that the Connecticut Senator has said that “John McCain has never supported amnesty and that anybody who says he does is a liar.”
McCain then pointed out that Romney essentially shared McCain’s view just two years ago, when he called McCain’s plan “reasonable” and defended it against charges that it represented amnesty.
For what seemed like several minutes, the two then argued back-and-forth, unimpeded by the moderators and their fellow candidates. What they said to — and over — each other was not nearly as significant as how they looked and sounded when they said it.
Romney, his hair shining, leaned forward and spoke rapidly and loudly while McCain leaned back in his chair and looked at him with squinted eyes, sort of like a skeptical parent listening to his teenage son frantically explaining away the giant dent in the family car. McCain’s tone, meanwhile, was calm and almost hushed, the voice of wisdom.
“You can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads but it still won’t be true,” McCain told Romney at one point.
The exchange played to McCain’s biggest strength, especially with New Hampshire voters: his reputation as a and battle-scarred man who is willing to take the heat for holding unpopular views. And it reinforced Romney’s prime vulnerability: the sense that he will say anything, about himself and others, to win.
But what really damned Romney was the assist McCain got from three of the other Republicans, who each made the same charge against Romney — with rather rmemorable zingers — at other points in the debate.
Early on, Mike Huckabee took issue with Romney when he launched into his by now familiar attack on a foreign policy essay Huckabee recently penned. As Huckabee sought to counter Romney’s criticism, Romney tried to claim the high ground.
“Governor,” Romney said, “don’t try to characterize my position.”
“Which one?” Huckabee shot back.
Later, Romney found himself on the defensive on health care, trying to square the program he embraced in Massachusetts — which mandates that every individual obtain health insurance for him or herself — with conservative dogma, which disdains such mandates. When he suggested that mandates would be acceptable to him as President, Fred Thompson jumped in.
“You like mandates?” he asked in his slow drawl. “I didn’t think you were going to admit that.”
“Let me tell you which ones I like, Fred.”
“The ones you come up with,” Thompson said dismissively, throwing Romney off stride.
But McCain’s best assist came from Rudy Giuliani, who gave the Arizonan cover against Romney’s immigration attacks by noting that Ronald Reagan himself signed into law a full-blown amnesty program for millions of illegal immigrants, a much more expansive program than the one championed by McCain.
“I think he’d be in one of Mitt’s negative commercials,” Giuliani cracked.
Maybe the rest of the Republican field is simply as tired as McCain of being attacked by Romney on issues that Romney — until very recently — held very different positions on. That’s certainly the case for Huckabee, the Iowa winner who is a viable contender for the nomination. But Thompson and Giuliani are also old McCain friends whose nomination prospects have badly faded. Was this there way of sticking up for their buddy?
Either way, Romney’s slipperiness became one of the predominant themes in tonight’s debate. It haunted him even when he was on supposedly safe ground, like when he said that in a Romney-Obama race he’d campaign as the candidate of change.
“Governor Romney, you and I disagree on a lot,” McCain said wryly. “But I do agree with you on this: You are the candidate of change.”
Romney needed McCain to take a hit tonight. Instead, it was the entire Republican field that delivered a devastating blow to Romney.