In this morning's Republican presidential debate on NBC, Mitt Romney came under fire from multiple corners. Jon Huntsman decried decisive rhetoric while touting his bold tax and entitlement reform ideas that were more conservative than anybody else on stage. And Texas Gov. Rick Perry made an articulate -- and at times, forceful -- case that he was the consistent conservative outsider in the race. Had this all happened in September, we may be looking at a race where Perry had just won Iowa and was well ahead in South Carolina, while Huntsman was nipping at Romney in New Hampshire. But this isn't September.
Instead, over the past several months, rivals hardly laid a glove on Romney. Perry had one disastrous debate performance after another and dropped like a rock in the polls. After a succession of candidates rose and fell, eventually Rick Santorum emerged as the leading conservative alternative to Romney. And Huntsman, boring and obnoxious in debates, never took off in New Hampshire. So what we're left with is a situation in which Romney is so far ahead in his quest for the GOP nomination, that barring a major catastrophe, he's unlikely to lose. In football terms, he's in the prevent defense -- able to surrender lots of yardage to his opponents in the middle of the field and still win as long as he doesn't turnover the ball.
A lot would have to happen at this point for Romney's path to the nomination to become thornier. Huntsman would need a late surge in New Hampshire, catching Paul in second place, thus giving him momentum to pull moderate votes from Romney going forward. Santorum and Gingrich would have to do poorly in New Hampshire and totally collapse in South Carolina so that Perry could come back from his current single digits there to win the Janaury 21st primary. Or, Gingrich and Perry would have to sink in South Carolina, allowing Santorum to win. And perhaps we'd have a Romney, Huntsman and Perry (or Santorum) race heading into Florida and beyond.
But just two days before the New Hampshire primary, it's unlikely that this morning's debate will allow that to happen. Even if Huntsman gained ground as a result of his performance, it probably won't be enough to catch Paul and if Romney lost ground, it likely wasn't enough to fall substantially in New Hampshire. Further, Perry's strong debate performance, if it gives him a boost in South Carolina, will likely do more to split the conservative vote and keep Santorum from winning the state than it will make him a contender again.
So, Romney's rivals may have scored some points today. But given that Romney is several touchdowns ahead late in the fourth quarter, it's unlikely that it will alter the outcome of the game.