With the crucial New Hampshire primary scheduled for Tuesday, Mitt Romney is increasingly becoming his rivals' piñata in the Republican presidential race. Even though his lead in the Granite State appears to be somewhat shrinking in last-minute polls, the anti-Romney barrage seems unlkely to push him from the lead in the next 24 hours.
One reason for Romney's apparent staying power is that his opponents' attacks, delivered in public statements and debates, aren't being sufficiently reinforced by television advertising. Romney's rivals lack the money to aggressively follow up on TV, and certainly do not have enough funds to compete with Romney's own ads. As a result, the criticisms don't have the resonance they could otherwise have.
Sunday's NBC News debate gave Romney's rivals an opportunity to go on the offensive, and they did so. Romney got into dustups with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum about being a trustworthy leader and his consistency as a conservative--topics that his critics have used against him many times before.
One memorable moment came when Gingrich questioned Romney's argument that he isn't a career politician. Specifically Gingrich spoke about Romney's claim that he didn't run for re-election as governor of Massachusetts in 2006 because he had accomplished his political objectives and wanted to return to his business career. Gingrich said Romney actually started his 2008 presidential campaign soon after leaving the governor's job, saying to Mitt, "Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney? Just level with the American people."
Romney handled the criticisms with good humor and without losing his cool--in other words, with the steadiness and calm that have characterized his past debate performances and drawn wide praise.
New Hampshire voters, however, have a way of delivering surprise verdicts, such as the victory they gave Hillary Rodham Clinton over Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary.
Romney, a former venture capitalist, seems to be in a strong position to win in New Hampshire, but he cautioned his supporters over the weekend that nothing can be taken for granted.
His warning was borne out of the latest poll numbers from Suffolk University/7News. It found that Romney's lead had eroded to 35 percent Sunday from 39 percent Saturday. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was in second place with 20 percent, up from 17 on Saturday. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman moved up to 11 percent from 9. Gingrich dropped to 9 percent from 10. Rick Santorum slipped to 8 from 9, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry of Texas held at 1 percent.