I’m sitting in the press filing centre at Saint Anselm College where the leading Republican and Democratic presidential candidates are about to hold back to back debates. The stakes are huge—this is Hillary Clinton’s last best chance to halt the Obama bandwagon before the primary on Tuesday. While on the Republican side, Mitt Romney can’t afford a bad showing. Worryingly for Romney, Ed Rollins, a key Huckabee aide, told the New York Times this morning: “We’re going to see if we can’t take Romney out,” Mr. Rollins said. “We like John. Nobody likes Romney.”
The next question is on the candidate’s bedrock principles. A series of bland, motherhood and apple pie statements follow as Romney and McCain refuse to take up the moderator’s invitation to go mano a mano.
Healthcare is the third topic up. Romney, who as governor of Massachusetts implemented a much-praised healthcare plan, gives a polished answer. However, he then comes under fire from Fred Thompson on the details of it. Romney looks rattled as another Republican goes after him. McCain has to be loving the way that Romney is taking fire from all sides.
McCain then gets a question on immigration, the Achilles heel of his campaign. He stresses securing the borders but supports the idea of their being an eventual path to citizenship and reminds people that these people are “God’s children.” Romney tries to draw a contrast stressing his new hard-line stance on the issue. Rudy chooses to emphasise his competence and ability to enforce the law but doesn’t back away from the idea of a path to citizenship. Then comes a ding-dong between McCain and Romney over Romney’s criticism of him. McCain tells Romney, “You can spend your entire fortune on these attack ads calling my plan amnesty and it still won’t be true.” He then tells Romney that he is not going to call up soldiers in Iraq to inform them that he’s deporting their grandmothers. Thompson then joins in the mass assault on Romney. Romney claims that the quote Thompson is using was wrong, McCain jokes that if you change position as often as Romney does you’re going to get misquoted from time to time. Giuliani then, sensibly points out that Ronald Reagan did do amnesty, and says that he’d be in one of “Mitt’s negative commercials.” By my count, every candidate has attacked Romney while the others—with the exception of the attacks on Ron Paul during the foreign policy section—are playing nice.
The moderator asks the candidates about how they would run against Barack Obama. McCain and Romney trade barbs but Huckabee steals the show with a clear, concise answer stressing the differences and similarities between him and Obama. Huckabee is turning in a strong performance, third place might not be beyond him here.
In a question about the price of oil, Thompson offers props to McCain again. Indeed, the frequency with which Thompson is taking on Romney and praising McCain makes one wonder if Thompson’s heart might not already be with McCain. Giuliani delivers a strong fact-filled answer.
The spin room afterwards sees the other campaign continue the attacks on Romney. How far Romney has lurched to the right is illustrated by the fact that Tom Tancredo, the most extreme person on immigration in the US Congress, is spinning for him on the issue.