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GOP Debate Analysis: Romney Soars Above The Fray

Tom Dotan |
October 11, 2011 | 9:14 p.m. PDT



Mitt Romney Courtesy of Creative Commons
Mitt Romney Courtesy of Creative Commons
"I believe in tables," declared moderator Charlie Rose near the conclusion of the GOP debate.

There was very little surprise in that statement; really, to know anything about Rose and his PBS talk-show is to know that he enjoys large, oaken tables and the conversation that happens around them.

Aware of what extempore moments have occurred in this setting, Mr. Rose hoped the GOP field, now entering a quasi-critical stretch, would have some revelatory unscripted moments at the family table.

But nothing earth-moving went down on stage at Dartmouth College. The show assiduously followed the trends of the last few weeks, and for Rick Perry that was bad, bad news.

No longer the candidate to beat, he looked wan and uncomfortable seated so close to his Republican peers. Before the debate, Perry's staff insisted that the Texas governor was buckling down in preparation, even hiring a stand-in for Mitt Romney to work from, or retort against, or scowl at. 

Maybe the Robo-Romney took it too easy on the guy, because he was nowhere near ready.

If Howard Dean went out with a scream, Rick Perry may go out with a mumble. He tried often to shoehorn the topics into Texas' surging oil industry, but trailed off each time and couldn't connect to larger economic issues. Perry avoided attacking Romney on his support of the 2008 bailout and didn't even join the pig pile on Herman Cain's "999" economic proposal; it was a neutered performance from the man people expected to be a GOP firebrand.

Privately, Perry's aides have confided that he's looking to make up on the campaign trail what he's losing in the debates. Earlier in the day he unveiled an ad that effectively equates Romney to Obama's less popular policies. But his poll numbers are slumping terribly right now, and if he can't convince donors of his viability fast, the Southern Galileo could soon be Texas toast.

Another storyline coming into this debate was the surging popularity of Herman Cain. Once a fringe candidate, his Florida straw poll victory and loud conservative rhetoric made him a haven for right wingers not willing to swallow the reality of a moderate pick.

Cain, who most knew as the pizza guy who loves the number nine, put forth a stable performance that could solidify his second place position. At nearly every conceivable opportunity, Cain name-dropped his "999" plan and, as a sign of his emergence as a top-tier candidate, it became a touch-point of criticism by his rivals.

Michele Bachmann snidely pointed out that the devil was in the details, implying a satanic inversion of the three nines. Rick Santorum played to the crowd in independent minded (and tax free) New Hampshire to see if anyone here would take Cain’s 9 percent sales tax. Jon Huntsman acerbically said the plan from the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza sounded like a deal for one of his pies. 

Cain relished all the attention. Each time a candidate pointed out a supposed flaw in his policy, he’d scowl and squint behind his thick glasses then claim he was misquoted. He’s never shown the nuts and bolts of how the Cain economic proposal would work, but it doesn’t matter. Cain is filling the needs of conservatives who’d feel potentially disenfranchised by a Romney campaign, and they’re not interested in asking what really goes into his secret sauce.

Meanwhile, the former governor from Massachusetts is sitting pretty. At the debate’s end, Rose and company turned the questions over to the candidates for an “ask your opponent a question” session and Romney got almost all of them. There’s no question he’s the frontrunner and can bob and weave through the sharpest barbs effectively (if a bit nonsensically).

His 59-point economic plan may not have the catch-phrase punch of Cain’s, but his knowledge of it is unchallenged. Even when he strayed far into dangerous waters, like accusing the Chinese of currency manipulation—not exactly a prudent way of dealing with America’s largest creditor—it gets drowned out by his more extreme rivals.

Right after Romney’s China salvo, Santorum actually said that as president he’d declare war on China. Elsewhere Newt Gingrich investigated options of throwing Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke in jail, Bachmann periodically howled "Obamacare," Huntsman poked around for another one-liner, and Ron Paul was Ron Paul.

All the while Romney looked on confidently, like a well-practiced prefect from Hogwarts. With family like this, who needs enemies?


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