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First Thoughts: Rivals pile on Romney

Our initial takeaway from NBC/Facebook debate: GOP rivals pile on Romney… But then they later back off… Huntsman’s strong performance… Santorum starts strong then fades… And breaking down Gingrich, Paul, and Perry.

CONCORD, NH -- Talk about night and day -- or, more accurately, night and morning. At last night’s GOP presidential debate, Mitt Romney’s rivals largely took a pass at hitting the front-runner for the Republican nomination. But at this morning’s NBC/Facebook debate here, they piled on Romney in the first 30 minutes; the arrows were out from the start. As he has on the campaign trail, Newt Gingrich called Romney a “timid Massachusetts moderate.” Rick Santorum added, “If his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts why didn't he run for reelection?... We want someone who's gonna stand up and fight for the conservative principles, not bail out and not run and not run to the left of Ted Kennedy.” And Jon Huntsman took issue with Romney’s criticism of Huntsman serving as President Obama’s ambassador to China: “This nation is divided … because of attitudes like that.”

*** But the pile-on lost steam: But after those first 30 minutes, Romney’s rivals mostly stopped their criticism. In fact, the entire debate was a metaphor for the entire GOP campaign -- piling on Romney lost its steam. Collectively, the group just doesn't seem to know how to sustain the attack, and that explains why Romney is ahead now and why he is getting closer and closer to becoming a "de facto" nominee. (Romney also did a pretty good job of parrying the attacks that came his way.) The big exception to the polite second half came at the end, however, when Gingrich and Romney sparred over the Super PAC TV ads that attacked Gingrich in Iowa. Also, it was striking to us that Romney admitted that he never thought he’d be able to beat Ted Kennedy in 1994. And Romney struggled a tad in his exchange with Gingrich over his work at Bain Capital, revealing that this remains a real vulnerability for him in a general election.

*** Huntsman’s strong performance: It came during the 15th debate of the GOP campaign, but Huntsman delivered perhaps his strongest debate performance of the cycle. He summed up the rationale for his candidacy when he said he wanted to unify the country and restore trust. We have two questions, though. One, is that message of unity and trust what Republican voters want to hear? And two, did Huntsman’s strong performance come too late?

*** Santorum starts strong then fades: Santorum also did well, too. That said, he was forced to admit that he voted for the 2003 Medicare prescription-drug law without paying for it. And he also seemed to fade a bit down the stretch. It’s not that he did anything wrong, but he seemed an afterthought, especially after his first volleys at Romney. His answer that he would love his son if he were gay could be a moment that gets played on TV in the next 24 hours, and it was a strong moment for him.

*** Breaking down the others: Gingrich was calm in the attack and seemed happy to have the fight… Paul was mostly an afterthought and didn’t get the applause lines he normally does from his supporters in the crowd... And while Perry poked fun at himself for his past “oops” moment -- he was able to name all three cabinet agencies he’d cut -- he was a bystander for much of the debate. After his disappointing fifth-place finish in Iowa, did he give a rationale why he should stay in the race? It didn’t seem that way to these pairs of eyes.

*** On the trail: After the debate, Romney (along with Tim Pawlenty) holds a rally in Rochester and then holds another rally (with Chris Christie) in Exeter… Gingrich attends town halls in Manchester and Derry… Ron Paul (with son Rand) campaigns in Meredith… And Huntsman stumps in Bedford and Keene… Meanwhile, Santorum heads to South Carolina, campaigning in Greenville… And Perry also travels to the Palmetto State, hitting Spartanburg.

Countdown to New Hampshire primary: 2 days
Countdown to South Carolina primary: 13 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 23 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 27 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 58 days

Countdown to Election Day: 303 days

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