Leading Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich and his distant rival Jon Huntsman froze out big candidate Mitt Romney with a debate Monday where they agreed on everything.
The one-on-one debate where no one really debated was a novel twist in Gingrich’s efforts to chip away at what remains of Romney’s aura as the inevitable Republican candidate to challenge President Barack Obama next year. Romney wasn’t even invited
The session in New Hampshire, focusing on foreign policy, was billed as a return to civility and in-depth discussion of issues, rather than the finger-jabbing theatrics of traditional televised clashes.
But Gingrich and Huntsman went further, all but falling over themselves to disguise their differences.
The lovefest began with lengthy opening statements of mutual admiration, then developed into near total accord on everything from overturning the government of Iran to boosting American manufacturing.
On issue after issue, Gingrich and Huntsman started their replies by noting how much they concurred.
“I agree with Newt completely,” Huntsman declared while discussing the need to sort out America’s gargantuan government debt.
When they got to discussing the rising superpower where Huntsman served as ambassador, Gingrich gushed: “Governor Huntsman, ambassador Huntsman knows far more than me about China… He’s very, very knowledgeable.”
Presumably because this was meant to be an old-fashioned exchange of views, rather than a political cage fight, the two contenders did not even mention other Republican candidates.
Most strikingly, neither of the protagonists uttered the name of Romney, who despite sagging poll numbers is still seen by many as the party establishment favorite and the man to beat.
For Huntsman, the former Utah governor who has remained a minor player in need of exposure so far, the payoff was obvious. He is staking his campaign on a strong showing in New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first Republican primary nominating contest next month.
For Gingrich, there was the chance to show off his image as a serious thinker, something that appears to be working with voters put off by repeated portrayals of Romney as a flip-flopper on issues.
But Gingrich possibly also had the more Machiavellian ploy of boosting Huntsman as an alternative to Romney, another clean-cut Mormon with the appeal of having had outside-of-Washington experience.
In fact, the debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester did contain one sly reference to Romney, but that was by the moderator.
Right at the end, Patrick Griffin made a dig at the former Massachusetts governor’s quip about making a $10,000 bet with fellow Republican candidate Rick Perry — and got the biggest laughs of the afternoon.
“The winner in Monday’s debate between Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman isn’t as important as who is the loser: Mitt Romney,” ABC television’s blog said.