At last, the rivals who were supposed to savage front-runner Mitt Romney in the final weekend before Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire got down to business.
In the opening minutes of their debate Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, several of those chasing Romney in the polls let fly the roundhouse punches they'd been pulling through weeks and months of TV debates.
Fittingly, the first to fire was Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, who had been far more reticent the night before in an ABC debate. On Sunday morning, that Newt gave way to a surly version, snarling at Romney for exceeding a time limit: "You can blow right through that red light because you're the front-runner."
A moment later, Gingrich was telling Romney to "cut out the pious baloney."
Many had expected Gingrich to lead in taking Romney down, because his own sudden ascent in the Republican presidential firmament last month ended when Romney's superPAC spent millions of TV ad dollars attacking him.
That wound was on full display in the debate's climax moments, as Gingrich challenged Romney to deny the superPAC was run by his former staffers. Romney all but laughed in acknowledging this much ("Of course they're my former staff") but a moment later denied any coordination between them and his current campaign.
Romney said he hadn't seen the ads – apparently meaning before they aired – but then ticked off several of the charges included in them. In each case, Romney added, the charge was true.
Debate moderator David Gregory of NBC encouraged the several contestants to speculate on Romney's electability. And while none would flat-out predict Romney's defeat by President Obama – in the moment – all suggested they would prefer a candidate who posed a stronger contrast with the incumbent. In other words, themselves.
But once again, as on Saturday night and in earlier debates, the questions were directed at the individual candidates in ways that diverted the discussion from Romney to his rivals. What rights did Ron Paul think Americans should be guaranteed by government? What would Rick Santorum say if informed his son was gay? How would Jon Huntsman deal with a hostile Democratic leader in Congress?
Such a distribution of questions is, of course, entirely right and proper. Viewers just tuning in to the campaign have every reason to start at the beginning, at least with the six candidates still in the running. The purpose of a campaign, from the public standpoint, is to air and consider the views and agendas and proposals of all viable contenders.
But for the contestant and their campaigns, the purpose of debates is to further one's own prospects in relation to all their rivals. And from that standpoint, this long series of more than a dozen confabs has operated to Romney's benefit. On Sunday morning, as in the earliest meetings last spring, Romney spent most of his time smiling – even beaming.