By Ken Tucker
Updated January 08, 2012 at 05:10 PM EST
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The second Republican debate within 12 hours was held Sunday morning during an expanded version of Meet the Press. Having laid back last night and given Mitt Romney an opportunity to speak at greater length than he has during any previous debate, his five competitors came to muss Mitt’s rhetorical hair at this one. Newt Gingrich implored Romney to “drop the pious baloney” about his history as a conservative and his motives for running for president.

Gingrich tried to blast Romney by loosening a shotgun blast: “The fact is, you had a very bad re-election rating, you dropped out of office, you had been out of state for something like 200 days preparing to run for president,” Gingrich said to Romney. “You didn’t have this interlude of citizenship while you thought about what you do. You were running for president while you were governor.”

Rick Santorum piled on, adding, “If his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts, why didn’t he run for re-election?”

Romney fought back, suggesting that Gingrich had profited in the private sector since leaving Congress. “I think it stinks,” said Romney. But perhaps he was smelling the baloney Gingrich was advising him to drop?

Rick Perry is fast becoming irrelevant, offering no new answers or ideas, instead spending his time licking labels and attaching them to President Obama: “We have a president who’s a socialist … I don’t believe our Founding Fathers wanted us to be a socialist country.”

Between Perry’s meaningless “socialist” tag to Romney’s repeated use of the phrase “career politician” to characterize Obama, the divisions between the Republican candidates were never so great that they lost sight of their prime goal: To keep invoking the insult of their choice for the president, fervently hoping that by sheer repetition on TV, the insult would transform into fact for many viewers. It’s an old tactic, but sometimes it works.

Twitter: @kentucker