Robert Novak

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Mitt Romney and Sen. Hillary Clinton wanted to use Saturday night's televised presidential debates to further their respective goals: keep Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama from winning Tuesday's New Hampshire primary. Neither accomplished that mission, but the failure is much more damaging for Romney than Clinton.

Romney looks like a clear loser of the state's Republican primary to McCain, which his once promising campaign can hardly afford on top of his decisive loss in Iowa's caucuses last Thursday. While Clinton cannot come close to matching the fervor of Obama's supporters, polls still show a close race on the Democratic side. Besides, despite her embarrassing third-place finish in Iowa, Clinton can withstand another defeat without dooming her once certain procession to the nomination.

The Romney and Clinton strategies were clear. Romney, arriving from Iowa in New Hampshire early Friday morning, challenged McCain's Republican credentials on taxation and immigration. By opposing George W. Bush's tax cuts and supporting the president's immigration reform, McCain had taken two positions unpopular with New Hampshire Republicans. Clinton confronted the fervor for Obama by contending the 46-year-old Illinois senator lacks experience and attacking his failure to propose mandatory universal health care -- tactics that proved to be of no avail in Iowa.

But it is difficult for a candidate to shape the agenda of multi-candidate debates, and Romney failed Saturday night. ABC's Charles Gibson, moderating the debate, never raised the tax issue, and Romney never managed to bring it up on his own. Immigration persisted as a debate topic, with Romney accusing McCain of advocating amnesty for illegal aliens. That represented a divided opinion in the Romney camp, with internal dissenters arguing that taking a hard line on immigration had not worked in Iowa.

Romney opened fire upon arriving here by declaring that McCain hardly could meet the national demand for "change" in Washington, because he actually is Washington. McCain's reputation as an insurgent, Romney told me Saturday, was won by "sticking it to his own party."

That theme was driven home to many more voters than the debate viewers in a heavy Romney television buy. His ad run during the weekend's NFL playoff games attacked McCain for trying to deprive ordinary Americans of the Bush tax cuts and foisting them with immigration amnesty.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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