On Sunday morning’s New Hampshire debate, host David Gregory cajoled the participants into attacking presumed front-runner Mitt Romney.

The line of attack all his challengers took was that Romney was insufficiently conservative. “There’s a huge difference between a Reagan conservative and somebody who comes out of the Massachusetts culture with an essentially moderate record,” said Newt Gingrich.

Contrasting himself with Romney, Rick Santorum described himself as having “a 90 percent conservative voting record.” What is more, Santorum claimed to have “stood up and fought for the conservative principles.”

Romney defended himself as “a solid conservative,” one who is “very proud of the conservative record I have.” Although Ron Paul would not take Gregory’s bait, Paul said of Santorum on ABC’s debate the night before, “To say you’re a conservative, I think, is a stretch.”

Said Santorum in response, “I’m a conservative. I’m not a libertarian.” On the ABC debate, Gingrich also staked out the conservative position.

Back on NBC, Gregory goaded all the candidates: “There is a question about who is the true conservative in the race.” Rick Perry assumed that honor for himself: “There’s a bunch of people standin’ up here that say they’re conservatives, but their records don’t follow up on that.”

What was heartening, and unprecedented, is that all the candidates, with the possible exception of the irrelevant Jon Huntsman, fought for position on the solidly right end of the spectrum.

This did not happen in 2008 or 2000 or 1996 or 1992. John McCain, Bob Dole and both George Bushes would have been unable to compete in this field, either ideologically or in terms of debate skill.

The media, however, have not drawn the relevant inference from this battle for position, namely that the consensus conservative candidate can win not only the primary, but also the general election.

By contrast, in 2008, Democratic candidates shied away from labeling themselves. In the comparable ABC debate of April 2008, for instance, one cannot find the word “liberal.”

The candidates were mum, and the hosts were sure not to goad them to compare their leftward credentials. I suspect that other transcript searches would show the same results.

The transcript also reveals how empty and vapid were their respective comments. Hillary Clinton tells us that what she brings to the campaign is her “passion for empowering people, for giving people the feeling that they can make a better future for themselves.”

Obama is no better. “My job in this campaign,” he repeated in multiple variations, “is to try to move beyond some of those divisions [race, gender, etc], because when we are unified there is nothing that we cannot tackle.” It did not get much deeper.

To George Stephanopolus’ credit, he did ask tough questions, especially about Obama’s relationship to Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, and he heard about it.

Following the debate, just about every chatterbox in the chattering class fueled what the L.A. Times called a “storm of criticism.” Their rage was directed not at Obama for his evasiveness, but at Stephanopoulos for his effrontery.

How dare he confront Obama with “such tired tripe,” said the Washington Post’s Tom Shales. How dare he ask Obama about an “obscure ’60s radical,” said Michael Grunwald of Time.

A Huffington Post blogger likened Stephanopoulos to the inevitable Joe McCarthy. He was one of many to do so. In the unkindest of cuts, several pundits accused him of conspiring with Sean Hannity.

“The real story of this debate,” snarled MSNBC’s inimitable Keith Olbermann, may be “where one of the moderators found his questions.” If Ayers and Wright were marginally in play before the debate, they were clearly out-of-bounds afterwards, at least in the mainstream arena.

Obama had established his distance from the guy in the neighborhood and the pastor who sometimes made inappropriate remarks. And God help the reporter or vice-presidential candidate who imagined Obama more closely entwined with either of these guys.

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