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The Republican Debate: The Roundup

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Former governor Mitt Romney (Mass.) came under repeated assault from his rivals for the nomination in tonight's Republican debate, creating a gang-up effect that made it difficult for him to score the points he needed to make up ground on Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) here in New Hampshire.

The second half of the 90-minute debate was dominated by a heated discussion between Romney and McCain over illegal immigration -- the touchstone issue for conservatives not only in New Hampshire but nationwide.

McCain defended his support for a comprehensive immigration plan, insisting that he did not provide amnesty to those who are here illegally because they would have to abide by a number of strictures including learning English and paying fines.

Not surprisingly, that did not satisfy Romney, who argued that McCain backed amnesty. "I disagree fundamentally with the idea that the 12 million people who came here illegally should be allowed to remain in United States," said Romney.

A clearly heated McCain, whose disdain for Romney was on full display tonight, shot back that as recently as two years ago Romney had called his plan "reasonable." Sticking the knife in Romney, McCain added: "You can spend your whole fortune on these attack ads but it still won't be true."

YOUCH.

But, it wasn't McCain's one-liner that made Romney lose the fight over immigration tonight. It was the ganging up on him by the other candidates on stage. Former Sen. Fred Thompson (Tenn.) jumped in to question Romney's ability to stay consistent on issues. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani chimed in: "Ronald Reagan did amnesty. I think he would be in one of Mitt's negative commercials."

What became clear in the debate's vesper half was that the entire field seemed committed to calling Romney out on issue after issue -- with illegal immigration taking the lead. Politico's Jonathan Martin suggests the gang mentality has to do with the personal dislike that his rivals have for Romney and we tend to agree.

In the face of this onslaught, Romney struggled to keep his footing and often appeared rattled. He scolded McCain and other candidates for their "personal barbs," but it's a tougher case to make in flinty New Hampshire than in good government Iowa.

Other thoughts:

*McCain appeared relaxed and in his element. Gone were the days -- in the mid-summer and early fall where McCain looked stiff and nervous on stage. He landed the major quotable body blow of the night against Romney ("You are the candidate of change," McCain said in a sly reference to the Massachusetts governor's at-times contradictory public statements.) McCain looked like a president tonight. Romney got in one good retort, warning McCain that he was headed for political trouble if he didn't heed the call for political change espoused by Democratic Sen. Barack Obama or tried to assert that he "knows the Senate cloakroom better" than Obama.

* Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.) disappeared in the second half of the debate after playing a relatively prominent role in the first 45 minutes. Huckabee seemed content to sit back and let his opponents argue over illegal immigration, jumping in only to make his trademark pitch for a new kind of bipartisan politics.

* It wasn't until 8:24 pm -- we noted it in the old Fix notebook -- that Romney got around to his message of change. "Washington is broken," said Romney, echoing his new stump speech. Unfortunately, Romney inserted that message too late if he wanted to turn New Hampshire into a referendum on change.

*Rep. Ron Paul insisted he and Obama (Ill.) have much in common -- most importantly their appeal to younger voters. Never really saw that before, Congressman.

More in-depth thoughts tomorrow in The Fix's winners and losers column. But now...on to the Democrats!!!

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 5, 2008; 9:00 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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Next: The Democratic Debate: Clinton on the Attack

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