MANCHESTER, NH — The GOP field will get its first shot at trying to slow Mitt Romney’s Iowa momentum at Saturday night’s ABC/Yahoo!/WMUR debate at St. Anselm College.
For months, the field has remained largely divided and ineffective in its attacks on Romney, opting just as often to take shots at each other in debates as a parade of dark horses briefly rose to the top tier only to quickly collapse, But there’s no question who the frontrunner is on Saturday: polls show Romney well positioned for big wins in New Hampshire, which has long been expected, and South Carolina, which is more recent and surprising. If he wins the latter, the nomination fight could be over fast.
Newt Gingrich, for one, has dedicated himself almost as much to tearing down Romney in recent days as he has to promoting his own campaign. Bitter over a deluge of attack ads paid for by independent groups backing Romney, he’s accused the former governor of lying about his connection to the attacks, betraying conservative principles in Massachusetts, and even said he “would buy the election he could.”
In an e-mail to supporters on Saturday entitled “Last Chance To Challenge Romney,” Gingrich’s campaign staff made clear he intends to come out swinging at the debate.
“As an early Tea Party organizer and committed conservative, I cannot fathom undoing all of the incredible things regular Americans accomplished since the birth of the Tea Parties by nominating a Massachusetts moderate like Mitt Romney to carry the banner of the Republican Party,” National Coalitions Director Kellen Giuda wrote.
Another candidate who might be on the defensive is Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania Senator was largely an afterthought in the race until a last-minute run in Iowa vaulted him into an essential tie with Romney for first place (the final vote count is in dispute). His move to the top tier is so recent that the other candidates have barely had time to react, but they’ll get a chance to make a play for his pool of voters on Saturday.
Already some campaign surrogates have begun taking shots. Romney backer John McCain went after his support for earmarks, an issue the Perry campaign also highlighted in a web video calling him “unelectable.” Despite rumors of a detente between Santorum and Gingrich in order to focus fire on Romney, Gingrich supporter ex-Sen. Bob Smith (R-NH) ripped into Santorum as a political opportunist this week for backing moderate Republicans in primaries, most famously Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania.
For Ron Paul, who has a deeply devoted following in the Granite State dating back to his 2008 run, the debate is another chance to spread his hardcore libertarian message. But he could face some tougher questions than usual thanks to a renewed focus in the press on a series of newsletters he published in the 1980s and 1990s containing racist and homophobic passages along with a litany of fringe conspiracy theories. Paul denies he wrote or approved of them.
Jon Huntsman, who has spent far more time in New Hampshire than any other candidate with little to show for his effort in the polls, will have to make some serious noise on Saturday if he wants to stay in the race much longer. He has at least a little momentum heading into the debate thanks to a big endorsement from the Boston Globe, one of the top newspapers in neighboring New Hampshire.
The debate will feature a slightly smaller field than when they met in Iowa. Michele Bachmann dropped out of the race after a weak performance in must-win Iowa. For a moment it looked like Rick Perry would be out too after he suspended his campaign due to a similarly devastating loss, but he’ll be at the debate as part of a last-ditch effort to jumpstart his campaign in South Carolina.
The candidates will quickly have a chance to bounce back if their debate performance on Saturday isn’t to their liking. They meet again Sunday at 9 AM for another debate hosted by NBC and Facebook.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.