MANCHESTER, N.H. -- It is somewhat astonishing, if not unjustified, that although only a small slice of voters have cast ballots in a single state where the winner emerged with an 8-vote margin of victory, the dominant question hanging over the contest for the Republican nomination is, 'Is it over?'
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has been the major player here in the Granite State for the cycle so far. His slim victory in Iowa, bolstered by polls showing his opponents barely making a dent here and expanding support for him in South Carolina, makes for a formidable frontrunner status. So formidable, in fact, that it may be impossible to derail.
Naturally, the single biggest question heading into this weekend of back-to-back debates in New Hampshire was: what were Romney's opponents willing to do to alter the trajectory of his campaign?
"Nothing" seemed to be the answer to that question at the ABC/Yahoo debate on Saturday night. Yet by the time the candidates appeared on the NBC debate stage Sunday morning in Concord, the answer had changed.
In the opening moments of the debate, moderated by NBC's David Gregory, both Sen. Santorum and Speaker Gingrich seized opportunities to chip away at Romney as a moderate, weak, unprincipled, and untruthful candidate for president.
Gingrich called himself a "bold Reagan conservative" in contrast to the "timid Massachusetts moderate" label he ascribed to Romney. Gingrich would not go as far to say that Romney is unelectable, but he made the case that Romney will have a tough time defeating President Obama because he doesn't provide as big, bold, and clear a contrast as Gingrich believes is required.
"I think he will have a very hard time getting elected," Gingrich said.
"He ran from Ronald Reagan and he said he was gonna be to the left just like Kennedy on gay rights and abortion, a whole host of other issues," Santorum said in reference to Romney's 1994 run for the US Senate in the Massachusetts. "We want someone when the time gets tough--and it will in this election. We want someone who's gonna stand up and fight for the conservative principles," he added.
Romney attempted to push back on the attacks coming his way by painting his competitors as life long politicians with no understanding of the real world economy because they lack his private sector business experience.
But Romney's argument was revealing in terms of how much he is willing to stretch to appear as an outsider to the political process. Romney claimed he didn't run for reelection in Massachusetts in 2006 because he had accomplished his goal of improving the state and that he decided to return to private business.
Yet, as Newt Gingrich quickly pointed out, Romney launched his presidential campaign almost immediately upon leaving the governor's office.
"Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?," Gingrich asked. "Just level with the American people," he added.
Ultimately, the Santorum and Gingrich attacks against Romney, and to a lesser extent the barbs that came his way from Huntsman, Perry, and Paul, were sharp but not sustained and may not have done the lasting damage they seek in order to upend the race.
These strong attacks go fundamentally after Romney's character, but they aren't particularly new. Nor have they had success sticking to Romney over the course of the last year. Surprisingly, there is still a lack of substantial and sustained television advertising aimed at tearing down Romney along these lines; without more of it, it will be much harder for his opponents to gain traction.
Still, the candidates not named Romney may have the political press corps on their side. There is always a desire among the press for a protracted race. That, of course, is in direct tension with the other strong desire: to be the first to declare the race over. As Romney's opponents attempt to rewrite the current narrative about his inevitability, they'll seek to exploit that tension.
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