One of the unusual qualities of this unusual Republican nominating contest is that it is not a Hobbesian war of each against each, but a clash of coalitions. The primary contest pits Team Mitt against Team Newt. Mitt Romney outperformed Gingrich at last night’s debate, owing in no small part to the contributions of his coalition partners.
The reason the race has taken the form of rival coalitions is that most of the candidates are running for reasons other than an attempt to become president. They have narrower ambitions that are better served by the triumph of one or another of the candidates who is actually trying to win.
Begin with Team Mitt. Ron Paul is onboard Team Mitt. Why? You can never really know with Ron Paul. But he has a bitter personal history with Gingrich, and his admaker, who is pummeling Gingrich with negative ads in Iowa, is married to a Romney consultant.
Michele Bachmann is a member of the team as well. After her presidential bubble faded, Bachmann now seems to be hoping for a spot as Romney’s vice-presidential candidate. Accordingly, she joined Paul in assailing Gingrich and largely leaving Romney untouched. Byron York reports that Romney is sending signals of encouragement to her to keep up the good proxy work:
And afterward, Romney aides were happy to put in a good word for the congresswoman from Minnesota. "Michele Bachmann is good," Stevens volunteered. "She is good. She's cogent, she's smart, unflappable — she must have been a heck of a lawyer. Very, very good. Very strong." The message to Bachmann: Keep at it.
Obviously, you’d have to be delusional to think that Romney would put a massive liability like Bachmann on his ticket. Luckily for him, Bachmann is delusional.
Team Newt consists of Newt himself and Jon Huntsman, who is probably running to position himself for 2016. Huntsman needs Romney not to win the nomination this time around for him to be the beneficiary of centrist buyers’ remorse. And so he is teaming up with Gingrich for a two-man “debate” and assailing Romney with negative ads in New Hampshire.
To Gingrich’s disadvantage, Huntsman is not competing in Iowa, which means he is not attacking Romney there, and not splitting the Iowa moderate vote. This meant Romney had the benefit of leaving the attacks in last night’s debate to his junior partners while he stayed above the fray, leaving Gingrich to defend himself solo.