Heilemann: Mitt Romney Somehow Avoids Getting Pummeled

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Coming into the first real debate of the 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest, arguably the central question was how much the candidates would focus on attacking President Obama and how much on hammering on Mitt Romney. The answer from the stage last night at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, was unequivocal: entirely and not at all, respectively.

This choice was curious, given that Romney is, according to the polls, the front-runner — and also, according to the political class, a strikingly weak one. You would think, therefore, that his rivals would have been itching to pummel him early and often. Yet they did precisely the opposite, exhibiting a strain of reticence and politesse that was wildly out of character for many (Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann) and illogical and unstrategic for all.

As University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato tweeted, “The non-Romney candidates don't seem to understand that Romney is their main obstacle to winning.”

From that confusion flowed the primary verdict on the evening: Romney triumphed. Not only did he emerge without a dent, but he came across as confident without seeming cocky or overweening, and calm without seeming comatose or robotic. And in the absence of being challenged on the topic of health care by any of his foes — and, in particular, by Tim Pawlenty (see below) — he presented his case for why Romneycare doesn’t equal Obamacare crisply and with verve. His weakest moment, around which the folks in Chicago are no doubt already preparing ads to be run next fall in Michigan, came in trying and failing to explain his past criticism of the federal auto bailout. As for his claim that to prefer spicy to mild chicken wings, anyone who was present at his announcement event earlier this month in New Hampshire and tasted his wife Ann’s chili could only laugh.

The debate’s other clear winner was Bachmann, who swiped headlines by preempting her own official announcement (set for later this month in Iowa) that she is running, while at the same time snapping off sound bites and applause lines effortlessly — and, importantly, without any of the crazy-eyed flashes that sometimes make her seem so … well, crazy. Her debut as presidential wannabe demonstrated why, as I wrote in last week’s magazine, she will be a force to be reckoned with in the race.

The flip side of Bachmann and Romney’s good night was the poor one by Pawlenty. Having uncorked a tough hit on Romney over the weekend — coining the phrase Obamneycare to strike at the front-runner’s most glaring vulnerability — the former Minnesota governor looked squeamish, even queasy, when CNN moderator John King prodded him (at the top of the festivities and three times, to no avail) to reprise it on stage.

Pawlenty’s fundamental task is to position himself as a strong and credible alternative to Romney, to his right but still electable, and to do so especially in the eyes of the GOP donor class. Instead, he appeared pallid, unprepared, and weak, unwilling to look Romney in the eye when they were standing next to each other. While Pawlenty recovered somewhat later on, it was his early flub that led news stories this morning and incited the sort of pile-on by party insiders that will make nervous donors all the more skittish about his prospects.

Pawlenty’s performance was not fatal; it is, to be sure, still early. But his debate whiff and its potential implications for his fund-raising will no doubt make it more tempting for those still standing on the sidelines — Jon Huntsman, Rudy Giuliani, Rick Perry — and contemplating the odds of emerging as the anti-Mitt. Meanwhile, Bachmann’s turn might either serve to persuade Sarah Palin to stay out (if she sees the space she thought she might occupy now inconveniently filled) or jump in (if what apostate-conservative commentator David Frum calls “her mean-girl, jealous streak” is inflamed).

And what of the rest of the Republican hopefuls — Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum? Entering the debate, not a one of them stood any plausible chance of being the Republican nominee. Exiting it, that had not changed. Cain’s night will be remembered chiefly for the bold assertion that he would not appoint to his cabinet any Muslims who intend to kill him. Gingrich twinned his scowling Old Testament visage with his tendency to talk like a Fox News analyst rather than a candidate. Paul was Paul: principled, consistent, and almost entirely indecipherable. And Santorum, asked whether he prefers Leno or Conan, managed to sound like a man who hasn't a clue who either of them is.

The Leno-or-Conan question was part of a ridiculous and cringe-inducing this-or-that line of queries (“Deep dish or thin crust?” to Cain; “American Idol or Dancing With the Stars?” to Gingrich) by CNN’s King, who was so fast-talking and eager to interrupt the candidates that you had to wonder if it was adrenaline or something stronger that had him so amped up. (“So, John: cocaine or crystal meth?”) He was another of the evening’s losers — although, unlike the rest of them, he still has his day job.

Related: Watch the CNN GOP Debate in Four Minutes
What You Missed in the Primary Season’s Second Republican Debate