The candidate who gained most from a Republican bickerfest in Las Vegas was the one who saved airfare and stayed in New Hampshire talking to voters face to face. At the very least, Jon Huntsman was not embarrassed by squabbling on the stage.
It started with Rick Santorum introducing himself as someone who was going to catch the redeye to be with his daughter in the hospital and quickly went downhill in political relevance.
Starting in poll-numbers order, Herman Cain took 999 heat but kept insisting his critics were comparing apples and oranges. If political rivals couldn’t understand his proposal, voters could go to his website and all would become clear.
But it was Mitt Romney, caught between two Ricks, Santorum and Perry, who was the punching bag of the night, struggling to get a word in edgewise as his critics pounded him for recommending Romneycare for the nation and hiring illegal aliens to cut his grass, both transgressions of almost a decade ago.
The liveliest exchanges were a bidding war for the most lethal fence to keep out Mexican immigrants, who are coming here less and less because of our economic woes. Cain stood by his “joke” to fry them, while Michele Bachmann vowed to close off “every mile, every foot, every inch” of the border and Perry upped the ante by proposing more boots on the ground and the use of Predator drones. Most of this was set off by a question about how they would appeal to Latino voters.
A question about Romney’s Mormon religion brought the expected safe responses, highlighted by a fervent testimonial to the importance of faith in American politics by Newt Gingrich, the only Speaker of the House to be reprimanded and fined for ethics violations, who converted to Catholicism at the behest of his third wife in 2009.
For a jaded observer, all this falls under the heading of entertainment, with the bonus of watching audiences responding with wild enthusiasm to the most extreme and irrational punchlines, but the real thing had fewer laughs than last weekend’s SNL sketch that was protested by Santorum for positioning him at a gay bar.
Whatever Huntsman gained by staying away, it couldn’t have been less than the accomplishments of those who were there.
Update: In New Hampshire, the missing-in-action candidate told voters, "I was offered an invitation to a game show tonight, playing out in Las Vegas--it's called the presidential debate."
At another stop, Huntsman said, “All I can say is they're missing out on a huge opportunity by not embracing a total boycott of the Nevada caucus and doing what the New Hampshire voters would expect. And that's to stand in a town hall meeting, delivering a vision for this country, and taking questions from average voters here."