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New Hampshire Debate Left Us Really Ready For Some Football

Many of the journalists and professional political types who dutifully watched Saturday night's Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire probably had the same thought occur to them at several points: "For this we missed most of the NFL wildcard game between the New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions?"

Not that there weren't fireworks. At one point when Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Newt Gingrich traded barbs over the Texas congressman's description of the former speaker as a "chicken hawk." It got so heated you half expected the ABC News moderators to tell them to take it outside.

But the debate didn't really change the dynamics of the race and much of it was filled with the candidates repeating talking points we've all heard plenty of times before. So why couldn't we have just watched the football game instead?

Anyway, since we watched it, we owe it to ourselves to figure out what happened, if anything?

The biggest winner?

Mitt Romney, the front-runner, without question. Romney probably came into the debate prepared to be savaged throughout much of the evening by his rivals as they tried to knock him down a few pegs.

Instead, Gingrich and Rick Santorum attacked him early then quit. The former speaker hit him for actions as a private equity investor that led to worker layoffs. Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, dismissed his CEO experience as not the right kind of leadership for the Oval Office.

But they didn't follow through. It was left to Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor, to go after Romney for overly trash-talking China. But Huntsman has been doing this for months and it hasn't worked so why would it start now?

Romney answered the questions he wanted to and ignored the rest, leaving the impression that he was in control, exactly what he was going for.

Other winners?

President Obama definitely won, too. Romney remained the only GOP candidate who seemed presidential. With his big money advantage and the full weight of the Republican establishment, Romney still appeared to be the eventual nominee. That meant all of the opposition research and strategizing the president's campaign has done for a year or more won't go to waste since Obama's campaign expected to be facing Romney in 2012.

The biggest loser?

Besides those of us who missed most of a good football game? It would have to be Texas Gov. Rick Perry. There were times when you could easily forget he was in the debate. And while he didn't have any gaffes, nothing he did argued for why he should still be in the race. He seemed the most irrelevant person on the stage. By definition, that would make him the biggest loser.

Oh yeah, and he said he would send U.S. troops back into Iraq if he had the chance ensuring that voters, already disinclined to give it to him, will be even more so.

Other losers?

Santorum certainly fell in that category because he didn't build on his Iowa caucuses showing by making a sustained attack against Romney of the sort that might help him gain on the frontrunner in South Carolina.

Throw Gingrich in the loser category too for not landing many blows on Romney. What's more, Gingrich resorted in his early attack on Romney to citing a New York Times story that chronicled the layoffs at an office-supplies company forced by Bain Capital when Romney headed that investment firm. A Republican presidential candidate leaning on The Times in a GOP debate to bash a rival might as well start quoting the president's criticisms of the same rival. It's not a winning strategy.

Weirdest debate moment?

Huntsman breaking out into Chinese again seemed off-putting. Whenever he does it, he always seems to be showing off. All of us who have paid attention know that he lived in China, that he was the U.S. ambassador there. We're glad the Berlitz lessons paid off. Let's move on.

Most riveting moment?

The aforementioned fight between Gingrich and Paul. As you might expect, Gingrich took a dim view of Paul essentially calling him a Vietnam-era draft dodger. Paul stood his ground.

Most confusing moment for non constitutional lawyers?

George Stephanopoulos' back and forth with Romney over whether states having the constitutional right to ban contraceptives. It was the old Abbott and Costello "Who's on first?" routine, only in a more high-brow form.

As noted earlier, Saturday night's debate changed nothing. Romney did nothing to hurt himself and his rivals did precious little to damage him either. All I can say is, thank goodness Sunday's debate is early. It should be a fading memory by the time Sunday's wild card games start.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.