In the Republican and Democrat debates at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH, on January 5th the candidates had a common strategy: Keep kicking the presumed frontrunners when they’re down to make sure they stay down.

Sen. John McCain (AZ), Fmr. Sen. Fred Thompson (TN), Rep. Ron Paul (TX), Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MA), Fmr. Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR) and Fmr. Mayor Rudy Giuliani (NY) participated in the Republican debate moderated by ABC News anchor Charles Gibson, who took a page from Fox News anchor Chris Wallace’s debate playbook and pitted the candidates against one another (“This is not about me asking questions … but about you talking to one another, pointing up the differences between yourselves.”).

And they really had at each other: Thompson and Romney v. Huckabee on Bush’s “arrogant bunker mentality”; Rudy McRomney v. Paul on the Bush doctrine (Romney and Thompson also pointedly accused Paul of mouthing the propaganda of America’s enemies, and all the candidates treated Paul with distain, repeating his outré statements to underscore their amusement or disapproval).

But mostly, the candidates went after Romney. At one point, The Stiletto got a mental image of banderilleros, each sticking his puntilla into the fallen bull:

† Huckabee got a laugh from the audience when Romney told him not to “characterize my position” on withdrawal from Iraq and Huckabee instantly retorted, “Which one?”

† Gibson noted that Romney mandated healthcare coverage in MA but flip-flopped on national healthcare and when Romney protested, “I like mandates. The mandates work,” Thompson immediately called him on it: “I beg your pardon? I didn’t know you were going to admit that. You like mandates.” Then Thompson and Romney mixed it up over who pays for the mandated coverage, with Thompson pointing out, “The government is going to make you buy insurance. … and make you pay – I mean, the state – your state plan, which is, of course, different from your national plan, did require people to make that choice, though. The state required them to do that.”

† McCain went after a Romney attack ad that characterized his immigration plan as “amnesty”: “It’s not amnesty. And for you to describe it as you do in the attack ads, my friend, you can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads, but it will won’t be true.” Romney’s response was positively Clintonian: “What I say is [the plan] you just described … most people would say is a form of amnesty. Yes, they pay $5,000, their background is checked, they have to learn English.”

For his part, Giuliani noted that ”the hero of our party,” Ronald Reagan “actually did amnesty. I think he’d be in one of Mitt’s negative commercials.”

Well, at least Romney could take comfort in winning the lion’s share of delegates in the WY caucuses (7 out of 12) – the run-up to which received scant media coverage. This was a much easier win for Romney than the contest he faces in NH, in part because WY has the third highest population of Mormons in the U.S. (after UT and ID) and because other than the Romney clan, only Thompson, Paul and Duncan Hunter even bothered to campaign in the state.

After the Republican debate, Fmr. Sen. John Edwards (NC), Sen. Barack Obama (IL), Gov. Bill Richardson (NM) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (NY) also got their crack at each other.

Not being a front-runner, Dennis Kucinich was excluded from the debate. But what’s a Dem debate without a Kucinich? Richardson happily stepped in to fill the void.

Gibson posed a scenario in which “Islamic radicals actually took control of the Pakistani government and, therefore, were in control of nuclear weapons” and Richardson’s first instinct was to “use diplomacy.” And à propos de rien – the scenario is predicated on Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf’s overthrow or assassination – Richardson also claimed that the U.S. has “leverage” to force Musharraf to step down, without indicating what that leverage is.

A skeptical Gibson tried to get Richardson to say what he would do if there was actionable intelligence as to Usama bin Laden’s whereabouts in Pakistan and “the Musharraf government won’t move. Do we, should we go into western Pakistan and, essentially, try to take him out?” Nope. “[F]irst you use diplomacy.”

For her part, Hillary unwisely reminded voters that “We” – does she mean President Billary Clinton or the U.S? – “did take action … on what was thought to be actionable intelligence, sending in missiles to try to target bin Laden and his top leadership who were thought to be at a certain meeting place. They were not taken out at the time.” Many voters no doubt also recalled that the Sudanese tried to hand bin Laden to us on a silver platter, but the Clinton Administration passed on the opportunity to take him off their hands.

True to form, Richardson again avoided confronting Hillary but Obama and Edwards ganged up on her.

Gibson asked Hillary and Obama to comment about her charges that he has flip flopped on several issues. She claimed that The Associated Press had made the flip-flopping charge, and then cited his evolving position on health care coverage. Obama wasn’t about to let her off the hook and reminded NH voters that “The Associated Press was quoting some of your folks, Hillary.”

In response, Hillary tried to drive a wedge between Obama and Edwards: “[T]wo weeks ago, you criticized Senator Edwards in saying that he was unelectable because … four years ago he wasn’t for universal health care; now, he is.”

Obama denied saying Edwards was unelectable and warned against “distort[ing] each other’s records as election day approaches here in New Hampshire,” before shooting this zinger at Hillary: “[T]he people of America are looking for are folks who are going to be straight about the issues and are going to be interested in solving problems and bringing people together. That’s the reason, I think, we did so well in Iowa.”

Edwards didn’t take the bait, either, and also turned on Hillary: “You know, Senator Obama and I … have a fundamental difference about the way you bring about change. But both of us are powerful voices for change. And if I might add, we finished first and second in the Iowa caucus, I think in part as a result of that. … Every time he speaks out for change, every time I fight for change, the forces of status quo are going to attack – every single time. Now, I didn’t hear these kind of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead. Now that she’s not, we hear them.”

Shortly thereafter, Richardson came to Hillary’s rescue: “I’ve been in hostage negotiations that are a lot more civil than this.”

Gibson wrapped things up with a curveball: “Tell me one thing you’ve said in those debates that you wish you hadn’t said. And it’s your chance to take … it back”

Hillary could have mentioned her earlier bin Laden comment – or better yet, her flailing about on the issue of whether forged documented aliens should be granted drivers’ licenses – but instead ducked the question altogether – as did Obama – while Edwards deflected it with a joke about regretting “teasing Hillary about her jacket.” Only Richardson took a swing, saying he wanted to take back naming JFK-appointed Supreme Court Justice Whizzer White after he learned that White “was against Roe v. Wade, against civil rights. You know, so … that wasn’t a good one.”

Romney emerged a bit more bloodied than Hillary – if only because she had two rivals going after her, whereas he had four.

Note: The Stiletto writes about politics and other stuff at The Stiletto Blog.

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