Mitt Romney scores decisive victory in Tuesday’s debate

by Brendan Monaghan

There’s been a lot of talk about the changing, shifting, dynamic nature of the Republican campaign. The lead has changed hands several times throughout, with the media and others focusing on a series of head-to-head match-ups: Romney versus Pawlenty, Romney versus Bachmann, Romney versus Perry. While he hasn’t always led in these contests, as the pattern suggests, there is one constant in the campaign with the former Massachusetts Governor. From the beginning, the rank and file and others have been looking for the “anti-Romney”; the credible consensus conservative who can knock out the elite establishment’s blue blooded, bankrolled, anointed one (and who also needs to be able to knock out President Obama).

That choice was to be Perry, who rocketed in to first place when he Rickrolled the Iowa Straw Poll in mid-August. A couple of debate performances later- which did not so much resemble “Nixon and Kennedy” as much as “Coyote and Roadrunner”- and the search was on again. Thus, tonight was Romney versus Cain, the charismatic businessman and radio show host who doubles as a pitchman for outsider’s common sense. Romney’s task for Tuesday night’s debate in New Hampshire was the same as it always has been: fend off another right-wing upstart, focus on attacking the president and not anyone else on stage, and present an aura of inevitability with his campaign.

Momentum- and a certain high profile endorsement that same day- were on his side, so an inconclusive result would benefit Mitt Romney. Barring an unforgivable unforced error or a mesmerizing performance by Cain or anyone else, Romney could win almost by default. Cain, on the other hand, had something to prove- namely that he was a contender for the nomination (not just a flavor of the month as some recent dropout from the race alleged), never having held elected office. This is not usually a desirable trait in Republican candidates. You would have to go back to Wendell Wilkie- FDR’s third victim- in 1940 to find the last such standard-bearer, who won the nomination based on his performance on ABC Radio’s “Who Wants to Be the Republican Candidate for President?”

With that in mind, and a debate exclusively on jobs, the economy, and fiscal matters (appropriate material for business-oriented Bloomberg Television), a great deal of time was spent shooting down the centerpiece of Cain’s campaign: the so-called “9-9-9” tax plan. Former Ambassador and amateur comedian Jon Huntsman jokingly confused it with the price of one of Cain’s Godfather’s pizzas. Bachmann elicited groans from the crowd rather than checks from Harold Camping’s Family Radio outfit when she suggested “9-9-9” be flipped upside down. “The devil is in the details,” she offered.

However, the most devastating blow came from former Senator Rick Santorum, of all people, when he turned and asked the audience, “how many people here are for a sales tax in New Hampshire?” When few, if any, cheered or raised their hands, Santorum’s analysis turned in to a prophesy: “there you go, Herman. That’s how many votes you’ll get in New Hampshire.” The serious question as to whether Republican voters should take a chance with an inexperienced outsider may have turned in to tremendous, crippling doubt. In addition to being the only one who had never been elected to anything, Herman Cain was also the only candidate on stage proposing a new national sales tax: one that could be perverted in to a European Union-style VAT, one that could be inflated in to 20-20-20.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney sat back and smiled. When Huntsman dug up and old fossil from Romney’s 1994 Senate campaign, Romney slapped it off and emphasized the private sector manufacturing jobs he helped create in Indiana. The haymaker came when Perry, firing the only bullet he seemed to have left, tried to hit Romney on health care- Romney’s signature legislation and seeming Achilles heel. Instead of tripping over his own feet and calling his opponent “heartless,” Romney turned the question completely around, contrasting his state’s health care program with not only Obama’s but Perry’s. “We have the lowest number of kids uninsured of any state in America, you have the highest.” He even made sure to point out that this number- a million according to the debate- had gone down under Governor Bush but up while Perry was in office.

By largely sitting back while his rivals mugged Herman Cain, and by ambushing Rick Perry on what might have been his last serious charge up the hill, Mitt Romney claimed for himself what he didn’t really need but the two others sought desperately: a decisive victory in Tuesday’s debate.

Brendan is a graduate student at Portland State University, where he hosts the KPSU “Right Jab” radio program, and a regular contributor at Oregon Catalyst. Brendan is studying political science, and graduated from The Ohio State University in 2007, with a degree in political science.