The media buzz coming out of Iowa was that the Republican Party was hopelessly torn in the presidential campaign, with voters and candidates all running at cross-purposes and months of chaos ahead on the trail. But tonight's ABC News/Facebook/WMUR debate showed the contenders putting aside their difference to face the one thing that truly, truly disturbed and horrified them all.
That thing, from all apparent evidence: Mitt Romney.
Though all six GOP candidates had their moments of interrupting, talking over, lecturing or otherwise needling each other, Romney played the straight man all night long, getting set up -- or setting himself up -- for punch lines his rivals couldn't resist. Watching the debate, you couldn't escape the feeling that they were unburdening themselves of months of frustration that had built up with each point he had climbed in the polls last year and each "contrast" ad he ran in the last month.
Here was Huckabee, after Romney told him not to "try and characterize" his position: "Which one?" Or Fred Thompson, busting on Romney's Massachusetts health care plan after Romney tried to clarify "which kind of mandates I like": "The ones you come up with." Or Giuliani, defending McCain's immigration plan when Romney tried to call it amnesty: "Ronald Reagan did amnesty. He actually did amnesty. I think he'd be in one of Mitt's negative commercials."
McCain got after him the most, though, starting with this exchange:
ROMNEY: No, that was quoted in AP. It happened to be wrong.
Let me -- let me -- let me...
MCCAIN: You're always misquoted.
ROMNEY: It was -- that does happen from time to time. But let me -- it does, actually.
MCCAIN: When you change issues -- positions on issues from time to time, you will get misquoted.
And then, there was this one: "My friend, you can spend your whole -- your whole fortune one these attack ads, but it still won't be true."
Of course, considering Romney lost the Iowa caucuses by nine points to Huckabee, and trails McCain in the latest New Hampshire polls, you have to wonder what, exactly, was going on. Romney's campaign was pretty sure. "If they're ignoring you, that means they're not worried about you," said spokesman Kevin Madden. Other Romney advisors hit the same talking point -- that despite his loss Thursday, rivals still think the former Massachusetts governor is the man to beat. And -- like nearly everything coming out of the disciplined Romney campaign -- that message dovetailed with another recent theme of theirs, that McCain, not Romney, is the one making the campaign personal. (Never mind the commercials accusing McCain and Huckabee of various policy perfidies, which New Hampshire viewers may have seen during the debate's halftime break.)
Naturally, McCain aides had a different take. Senior advisor Mark Salter said McCain delivered his zingers with a smile -- and besides, Romney started it. "Come on, Mitt, tighten up your chinstrap," Salter said. For the first half of the debate, McCain and Huckabee both played it safe, staying quietly out of the way as Giuliani, Thompson and Romney all tangled with Ron Paul over foreign policy. (It was a pointless fight, since none of the voters the others are appealing to will vote for Paul, and none of Paul's legion of revolutionaries are likely to peel off, either.) But by the time the night was over, McCain couldn't help himself, as if he just wanted to finish Romney's political chances off right here and skip the voting Tuesday.
There's a more compelling reason for all the zingers directed his way tonight than the one Romney's campaing offered up -- if he loses here, he could be knocked out of the race not long after. In the end, the Romney spin is, technically, correct. McCain is aiming right for him here. And tonight's debate showed is that everyone else is, too -- which, despite the spin, is a serious problem for Romney. Fending off one strong challenger wouldn't be easy. Fending them all off at once will be downright hard.