This debate was a very weird exercise. Mitt Romney looks to be on the verge of wrapping this race up pretty early. He won(*) Iowa; he’ll almost certainly win New Hampshire by a big margin; and he now looks positioned well to pull off a convincing, if not overwhelming, win in South Carolina. If so, he’ll be the first Republican to do that in like forever. And he’ll have gone a long way toward showing he can compete with GOP electorates in three key regions of the country.
And yet, Mitt Romney was almost totally absent from this debate. Yes, he said a few things. And he got his core messages across pretty well. But Romney himself was totally absent from the discussion. It was the individual candidates (besides Romney) attacking each other; or the individual candidates getting distracted by moderators’ questions which — whatever their merits — didn’t take the argument back to core issues relating to Romney; or the individual candidates making passable but not terribly effective arguments for themselves.
If you’re Eric Fehrnstrom or the other folks in the Romney operation you just love that. Because Romney is far in the lead. And this kind of result is really the best you could hope for. The entire evening read like the other candidates are either resigned to Romney’s expanding lead or were simply unaware of it.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.