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.

Having lost badly in Iowa to Mike Huckabee's evangelicals, Romney found himself confronted with McCain in non-evangelical New Hampshire. Since McCain hardly campaigned in Iowa and Huckabee is not a factor in New Hampshire, Romney felt himself the victim of a political tag-team match. (However, old political pro Ed Rollins, who is Huckabee's national chairman and predicted his big win in Iowa, claims Romney is in a free fall and could finish behind Huckabee here.) Indeed, Romney was surrounded during Saturday's debate, with McCain and Huckabee on the friendliest of terms with each other and Rudy Giuliani pitching in against Romney on immigration.

Clinton sounded her anti-Obama message beginning Friday morning. But she was battling Obamamania, with huge crowds attending his campaign appearances and Obama supporters dominating even Friday night's annual state Democratic fund-raising dinner. While Obama is eloquent and inspirational, Clinton plows on humorlessly with her "five-point" resolutions.

Clinton did try to lighten the Saturday night debate by taking mock offense at a question describing her as "unlikable." In fact, that is precisely the phrase used to describe her by local supporters, who are gloomy about the outcome Tuesday no matter how close the polls show the race to be.

The debate was as difficult for Clinton as Romney. Following her script that Obama could not be trusted, Clinton quoted an alleged Associated Press crack that Obama "could have had a pretty good debate with himself" (when in fact it was the AP quoting a Clinton supporter).

Instead of being the anointed leader of her party, Hillary Clinton goes into her first presidential primary after being isolated in Saturday night's debate, with Obama and John Edwards seeming to gang up on her. When a questioner noted this, the senator responded with what has become a trademark cackle. It has proved a much more difficult campaign than she ever dreamed.


Robert Novak

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

 
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