In late 2007 I wrote here that "I can't stand mitt."
At that time, Mr. Romney was engaged in what seemed like consistent emotional politicking, culminating in the candidate attempting to characterize the grief he would feel should he lose a son (hypothetically) fighting in Iraq. It was emotionless, stiff, and felt very much like an act of theatre.
This past week, the GOP candidates debated at the Reagan Library, and while many of Romney’s characteristics that I disliked in '08 are not gone, his tone has improved decidedly.
Where does the race stand now?
Rick Perry is a go-to guy for referencing. He's the most expressive candidate, sending thumbs-ups to Gingrich, nodding along with Huntsman, etc. I see Perry maintaining this status, as a candidate that others sound off on and sculpt their positions around, but I doubt he can steadily grow his campaign all the while.
Bachmann always hammers on the “repeal Obamacare immediately” urge. So too: "energy is too high, let's have a goal of bringing it down." Cheap gas and no more Obamacare? Agreed, now exit the race and let another candidate say that. Amid Perry’s entrance, and the media’s portrait of a ‘two horse race,’ I struggle to see a scenario in which even a strong showing in Iowa would persuade New Hampshire voters to give Bachmann a second pass.
Huntsman reliably enters the debate saying it is "absolutely not" responsible for a candidate to promise being able to lower gasoline, and the contrasts at work within the Republican party are hard to ignore. The longer Huntsman stays in the race, the more I like his chances, especially in New Hampshire. In a state where Romney is the de facto favorite, a ground presence by Huntsman will be more palatable to Granite Staters than organizational attempts by Perry or Bachmann to make these candidates appeal to local voters unenthused for social conservatives.
Despite this, Huntsman seems to get lost in his own statements. He demonstrates that he wants to steer the conversation in the right direction and segue into his talking points, but his sentences seem fragmented, his buzz lines incomplete, and his tone flat within the spacious judgment of the auditorium. His television persona will need to improve in the coming months to broaden his appeal and convince more than moderate conservatives that he’s not a liberal plant in the GOP field.
Once again, I enjoy hearing from Gingrich. As I've said after his first debate performance, he's in touch with the "Republican Party" as it existed prior to 2002/3. I feel the "case for Iraq" campaign by the Bush Administration, and the subsequent the invasion of Iraq, birthed a left-wing backlash against the President (notable for consistent mockery, ubiquitous George Bush countdown clocks that awaited his inevitable exit from the office) that gave Republicans a political high ground and 'message power' in the 2010 and 2012.
Gingrich stands up for other candidates, he defines civility on his own terms, goes after the debate moderators when other candidates prefer to play to the questions, and in what MSNBC called a "toxic political climate," his 1990's congressional tenure looks oddly civil by comparison.
Santorum is sloppy, referring to himself in the third person, fumbling on describing his political record, and seeming over-eager to have a chance to speak. I empathize with how he feels — too often candidates polling low at the time of the debate (including my personal favorites in the '08 Democratic contest, Dodd and Biden) are excluded from the discussion — but Santorum is neither charming enough nor sufficiently removed from the unpopular congressional climate to claim a clean slate and appeal widely, as Huckabee did in late ’07.
As to who'll be the man to beat in the coming months, Mitt Romney is without question the most competent and polished front runner. The sparring between him and Mr. Perry to kick off the debate highlighted their respective strengths; both men traded job creation statistics, comparing what one man did in three months versus the other man's entire term (repeat), but Romney showed political tact by changing the topic to the underlying economic conditions that allowed Texas job growth to occur faster than in Massachusetts, such as its rich oil reserves, 0% income tax, GOP legislature, and "right to work" regulations.
Perry's best issue is border security, but it's a non-issue. Romney says the problems aren't at the border, but because we've "left the magnet on," targeting the Dream Act and other laws that allow those who've "cut the line" to have a special deal within the immigration process.
Perry's comments were all over the board about Social Security, referring to the budget shortfall of the program as a Ponzi Scheme. Romney takes a hard line on Social Security, defending the program, and standing by sensible reform instead of a broad condemnation of the entire program. Herman Cain: "Do you want to hear a solution or do you want to hear more rhetoric?"
Ron Paul piles on, noting how he never considered the Texas governorship to be so powerful as during Perry's terms, and he voices his displeasure at Perry's use of the executive order to pass policies such as the vaccination of teenage girls against HPV.
On this topic Bachmann and Santorum pile on, taking some fault or another with Perry's position, but Romney's last comment ties everything together. He sides with Bachmann on her parental rights stance, he notes that he's "taken a mulligan" before, and points out that Perry has said he'd do things differently next time around.
Knowing when to attack, when to hold back or compliment, Romney shows he's capable of changing his tune to suit the way the GOP field shifts during the course of debate. His ability to emerge out of the GOP candidates on stage and impress will be an asset in the coming months, but he will have to adjust yet again to stage with President Obama. Regardless—
Should Romney consistently be able to "edit" and "take the best from" his field of opponents as he did tonight, his voice will become increasingly trusted within the field.
I happen to think Obama may have some political ammunition come the general election, noting that despite job losses the American economy has become more efficient than ever. This statement might seem unpalatable during a recession, but the number of Americans who actually are unemployed constitute not so large a voting block that it must be held at all costs, and there's no saying that even the unemployed would universally oppose that outlook.
A candidate can do something important now to seize a historical moment. Given the current field I believe that man to be Mitt Romney. With a competent and persistent sitting or retired legislator as his running mate, the ticket proposed by the conservative nominee in this election cycle is well timed to make a statement in 2012.
(Photo credit: Luke N. Vargas. 2008. All Rights Reserved)