Mitt Romney’s strategy of non-engagement with his GOP rivals has set the tone for the New Hampshire primary, but it’s the national debates that are driving the narrative. During the debates, the former Massachusetts governor has periodically taken swipes at the emerging contenders in order to thwart their momentum. His exchanges with Newt Gingrich on Saturday were the latest example of what has been a successful strategy – so far.

Romney has long been the frontrunner in the race for the GOP nomination here and for the past year has dictated the pace, tone and flow of the campaign. He’s consistently framed his only rival as President Obama, and the economy as their main point of contrast.  In doing so, the Romney camp sought to shrink the bandwidth for the media and his primary rivals to engage, contrast and define him. Shrinking the size of the bull’s-eye, their thinking went, would limit the opportunities to bump Romney off the economic contrast message he would drive against Obama.

Moreover, minimizing Romney’s exposure against his rivals would strengthen his many assets—name ID and favorability ratings, organization and fundraising ability. It would also reduce their ability to exploit his weaknesses, mainly Romneycare, and his past moderate stances on several issues dear to conservatives. Less was more, and it has largely worked for Romney.

But Romney’s non-engagement strategy on the ground in New Hampshire, for instance, didn’t account for the seemingly endless number of nationally televised debates. These events have provided a tremendous opportunity for his primary opponents to engage and define the frontrunner, and they’ve given each one the chance to audition as the viable alternative. In 2008, we saw Romney often playing defense in debates against the likes of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Mike Huckabee, so it seemed likely that his 2012 rivals would start to chip away and force him to readdress his strategy.

That hasn’t happened. Instead of taking on Romney, they’ve each sought to grab the mantle of viable alternative. Take Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) referring to “Newt-Romney” on Saturday night in Iowa.

To date, when Romney has felt threatened, he’s been able to use the debate platform to successfully thwart his rivals. He sought to use the debate stage against Gingrich in Iowa, scoffing at him for advocating colonizing the moon, revamping child labor laws and claiming to have worked in the private sector. “K Street's not the private sector,” Romney told the former House speaker.

Absent Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s engagement of him and the sideshow of the $10,000 bet, Romney largely benefitted by others on stage trying to improve their own lot by also targeting Gingrich. Instead of focusing on Romney, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) reiterated his charge that Gingrich was a hypocrite. Perry said in reference to his rival’s past marital infidelity: “I’ve always kind of been of the opinion that if you cheat on your wife, you’ll cheat on your business partners.” Rick Santorum echoed Perry and called Gingrich’s past infidelity a “factor” in the race.

That dog piling on Gingrich mirrored what happened to Perry when Romney engaged him in the fall debates as he was picking up steam. Romney saw Perry as a threat then and stepped away from his self-driven strategy of non-engagement and challenged Perry directly, beginning at their first meeting on stage in September. As Perry and Romney engaged, other candidates joined in, but focused their arrows almost entirely on Perry.

Gingrich, however, may not be as easy to beat back. Newt was cool under pressure, adept at picking apart the attacks, and has a command of the issues that Perry does not possess. Since attracting notable endorsements and shooting up in recent polls, his camp has rushed to add staff to harness the renewed interest. Just four weeks earlier, voter inquiry into Gingrich was probably similar to water dripping out of a faucet. Now, it’s more akin to a fire hose. With less than a month before the first votes, Romney cannot fully count on others pulling Gingrich down in these debates, never mind in Iowa. That means Romney’s non-engagement strategy must be shelved if he’s going to be successful. There are early signs of that happening.

During a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Monday, he called on Gingrich to return the $1.8 million in consulting fees he had received from Freddie Mac, the New York Times reported. And Gingrich responded by saying Romney should “give back all the money he earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain.” Romney told Politico the same day that Gingrich was now the frontrunner, an admission that signals an end to the strategy of non-engagement.

Rich Killion is the managing director of Elevare Communications, a strategic communications and public affairs firm based in Concord, New Hampshire. Killion was New Hampshire strategist to Mitt Romney’s 2008 and Tim Pawlenty’s 2012 presidential campaigns.

Tags: Mitt Romney, New Hampshire Primary, Newt Gingrich, Republican debates