Students at St. Anselm College serve as stand-ins for presidential candidates… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )
If anyone is going to take it to Mitt Romney, it might as well be now.
The slowly diminishing field of GOP presidential candidates, as odd as it may seem, has two debates that will begin within 12 hours of each other, just a couple of days before the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary.
Saturday evening’s debate, sponsored by ABC and Yahoo, will be held at St. Anselm College in Manchester; the Sunday morning tilt, co-sponsored by Facebook, will be held in Concord and shown live on MSNBC and then later on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Together, they represent a chance -- perhaps one of the few remaining ones -- for the other GOP contenders to dent Romney’s growing momentum.
Polls show Romney with a sizeable lead in New Hampshire ahead of Tuesday’s primary and a new CNN-Time poll has him in the lead in South Carolina as well, raising the possibility that the question of the GOP standard bearer could be settled sooner, not later.
Romney felt confident enough about his chances in New Hampshire that he took time out this week to make a quick stop down in South Carolina before returning. It’s expected he’ll try to stay above the fray and keep his sights set on the economy and President Obama, leaving the other participants, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman Jr. and Rick Perry, to come after him.
But will they? If anyone has reason to be aggrieved with Romney, it’s Gingrich, after a pro-Romney "super PAC" bombarded the airwaves in Iowa and damaged his standing in the eyes of caucus-goers there. But the former House speaker told reporters Saturday that he’s going to try and keep on the sunny side.
"I’m not going to go after Mitt Romney. I may define the reality of a Reagan conservative and a Massachusetts moderate,” Gingrich said euphemistically. Still, the odds are that Gingrich and Romney will have a tart exchange or two before the dust settles Sunday. And, as the super PAC ads have so thoroughly detailed, Gingrich has his own worries, including his work for conservative bête noire Freddie Mac and that climate-change video he cut with Nancy Pelosi, which was shown on an almost continuous loop in Iowa.
In the meantime, this will be Santorum’s first national debate where he’ll be regarded as a player and not as an afterthought consigned to one edge of the stage. And the question remains whether he’ll use his newfound spotlight try to bring Romney down in the eyes of voters or lift himself up.
“I think everybody objectively speaking has always said he's had good debate performances “ his campaign manager, Matt Biundo, said Saturday. “You know he's solid on the issues. He's just going to go out and do what he's been doing the whole time -- probably with a little more airtime."
An interesting dynamic is evolving between Santorum and Romney, as the former Pennsylvania senator and the grandson of a coal miner, appears to be trying to connect with middle-class voters by painting Romney as an elitist and a defender of the status quo.
“The leader in this race fashions himself as ‘I’m a CEO. I’m a good manager.’ Washington, D.C. and this government doesn’t need a good manager,” Santorum said in Amherst, N.H., on Saturday. Americans, he said, “need someone with a bold vision to transform Washington, to limit government, not to manage the problems that are in that city.”
Santorum has his own vulnerabilities. He’s likely to be asked about his support of earmarks during his two terms in the Senate and perhaps his uncompromising views on same-sex marriage, which have become an issue in his time in New Hampshire. And it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him asked about his endorsement of Romney in the presidential race four years ago.
Gingrich also had harsh words for Santorum this week, dismissing him as a “junior partner” in the “Republican Revolution” on Capitol Hill in the 1990s.
If anyone is going to be tough on Romney, it may well be Huntsman, who has long been counting on New Hampshire to reverse his fading fortunes. There will be no better time and no better platform for Huntsman to try and draw a contrast with the front-runner. These two debates are likely his last chance.
And then there’s Paul, who, given his appeal both to tea-party supporters and independents, has also been rising in the polls in the Granite State, enough that someone like Santorum, who has his eyes on finishing in the top tier, likely will hammer him on his approach to Iran, among other issues.
That brings up another possible scenario for the two debates. Given Romney’s commanding lead in the state, it’s possible his competitors, their eyes now on South Carolina, will train their fire on each other in a furious battle for second, or third, place while bypassing him. That could have Romney leaving the debates in better shape than he came in.
Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.