The New Hampshire primary debate Saturday night was billed as a chance for the Republican candidate field to criticize front-runner Mitt Romney, with the goal of cutting his lead. Unfortunately, however, its tone suggested the candidates were trying to position themselves for high-level jobs in a hypothetical Romney administration -- or as a vice presidential nominee on a Romney-led ticket.

The debate performances by challengers Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Perry suggested they were reluctant to challenge Romney -- the presumptive nominee to oppose President Barack Obama in debates next fall -- for fear of giving the Democratic Party cogent points in campaign ads against him.

The clear debate winner: Mitt Romney.

Candidate Performance Summary

A summary of each Republican candidate's presentation and tone for the night:

Mitt Romney took the measured, deliberate tone of a front-runner -- directing most of his criticism, predictably, at President Obama. He offered no new insights or positions and basically displayed the stance of someone who can't lose the New Hampshire primary unless an awful gaffe occurred. In other words, Romney, for most of the night, deployed the prudent political tactic of someone sitting pretty: Don't just do something, stand there.

Newt Gingrich did criticize Romney a little, particularly his tenure at Bain Capital, where Romney specialized in mergers and acquisitions -- deals that, like most restructurings, resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs. However, Gingrich did not offer additional information to change his existing narrative: that he is the last conservative standing, and a vote for him, despite his Washington mistakes and high public opinion negatives, would be a vote for conservatism over the more-moderate Romney.

Ron Paul repeatedly criticized fellow Republican candidates for overspending and supporting, in one way or another (as office holder or lobbyist) big government. Without question, it was a vintage libertarian performance by Paul, who continues to give every impression that he would vote against almost all federal government programs, would seek to dismantle whole departments, and would substantially shrink the size of government.

Unfortunately for Paul, his radically anti-federal government stance still looks more like a psychological protest than a viable platform that can govern the largest and most technologically advanced economy in the world, in a remarkably diverse nation undergoing epochal social changes.

Rick Santorum had a low-profile, almost inert performance, and aside from distinguishing his some government philosophy from Paul's no government philosophy, heoffered nothing new to his campaign profile that indicates he's the party's social conservative. Santorum's standing among social conservatives is high; unfortunately, it's occupying a smaller and smaller faction of the Republican Party as the decades pass, and the nation's acceptance of civil rights for gays/lesbians, among other issues, is evidence of that.

Jon Huntsman emphasized his experience in both the private sector and as governor, arguing, with considerable truth, that he made Utah more friendly for business, resulting in substantial job creation. However, Huntsman, once again, did not offer voters that compelling, unique fact or dimension he needed to elevate him to strong contender status in the 2012 Republican Party nomination race. Once again, Huntsman's performance strikes one that he's jockeying for a cabinet post in a presidential administration -- one, in fairness to his accomplishments, he deserves.

Rick Perry, who started the debate as almost an afterthought, given his plunge to lower-tier status following three self-recognized, very poor debates and a series of campaign mistakes, registered another sub-par debate performance, and another oops moment. Saturday night's ill-conceived statement: Perry said he would send troops back in to Iraq to quell sectarian violence -- a view that, unless public opinion has shifted substantially in the last few days -- is not supported by the majority of American voters. Perry is the quintessential example of a good, decent person with public executive experience but who lacks enough knowledge of the federal government and experience in nation-level public policy to run for the presidency.

Pre-Debate Poll Had Romney With Double-Digit Lead

Saturday night's debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., occurred against a backdrop that saw Romney with a prohibitive lead in the latest poll.

According to a Suffolk University / 7 News two-day tracking poll, Romney has the support of 41 percent of likely New Hampshire primary voters; Paul, 18 percent; and Santorum, 8 percent, CNN reported Thursday.

By any modern political science evaluation, a 23-percentage-point lead is an enormous upside. Still, with an electorate that has been as mercurial and as unpredictable as the American electorate has been in the past eight years -- lurching back and forth between the two major parties -- anyone who can say they can predict the final percentage totals for Tuesday night's all important New Hampshire primary is being disingenuous.

Further, if history is any precedent, the above suggests that Romney is going to finish the primary with the highest percentage of the vote. In the standard sense, Romney will win the New Hampshire primary.

However, if Romney sheds a great deal of his lead to Paul, assuming Paul finishes second, Paul, not Romney, will likely win the expectations game, and be declared the de facto winner of the New Hampshire primary by the national media. And if Paul does so, he'll receive all of the benefits that stem from that expectations game win -- media coverage, name recognition and money. How well does Paul have to do to win the expectations game? Roughly come within 10 percentage points of Romney -- say a 40/30 percent finish or a 36/28 percent finish -- something along those lines.

Iowa Picks Corn, New Hampshire Picks Presidents

Further, although each presidential election cycle is different, the importance of the New Hampshire primary -- and the need for any candidate hoping to wrestle the nomination away from front-runner Romney -- to do well, can not be underscored enough. Or, as one old saying has it, Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire picks presidents.

Further, if political science research is any indicator, the determining factors will be next Tuesday's New Hampshire primary and the multiple events on Super Tuesday -- March 6.

Slam New Hampshire

In past presidential election years, the winning nomination strategy has been to slam New Hampshire, meaning, first win that primary, and then use the increased name recognition, media coverage and money to perform strongly on Super Tuesday -- when eight primaries or caucuses will be held this time around -- to clinch the nomination.

The New Hampshire primary election is critical in the nomination process for three reasons: 1) its timing, 2) because it is conducted by secret ballot (unlike the Iowa caucus) and 3) because the state is seen as being representative of mainstream America and small-town America. Regarding this latter point, voters in the New England state are believed to constitute a good barometer of what the bulk of the party members in the rest of the nation -- the Midwest, the South and the Rocky Mountain region -- are thinking.

For this reason, the winner of the New Hampshire primary almost always secures the party's nomination for president.  

However, there have been exceptions: The last was in 2008, when then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., won the New Hampshire primary but lost the Democratic nomination to then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.