Romney’s missing rival
Goffstown, N.H.—THE HIDDEN winner in Monday night's Republican presidential debate?
Well, he's a certain pragmatic ex-governor, a man who claims strong business credentials.
Need another hint?
He's often casually clad these days.
Well, OK. Let's see: He's a well-known Mormon.
No, not Mitt Romney. He was the obvious winner.
I'm talking about presumptive candidate Jon Huntsman, who wasn't on the stage at Saint Anselm College.
Here's why it was a good night for him: With Romney holding a strong advantage in New Hampshire, the big question has been, who will emerge as his principal rival?
No one made much headway there. Instead, the evening's storyline was mostly Mitt and the Munchkins.
Crisp and confident throughout the night, Romney looked like a knowledgeable national candidate. The other six seemed like niche candidates vying for a toehold with a more-limited segment of the GOP electorate like the Tea Partiers or the social conservatives or the supply-siders.
It was a particularly bad night for Tim Pawlenty. On Sunday, the former Minnesota governor had raised expectations that he would go after Romney by describing the federal health care law as "ObamneyCare.'' But asked about his remarks with Romney there on stage, T-Paw was meek as a churchmouse.
Later, his team argued he'd had a good night because some of the early discussion had focused on his widely panned economic plan, which assumes a decade (!) of 5 percent average annual economic growth, something virtually unheard of in the modern era. No one else wanted to wander explicitly into the land of miracle growth. No one except Republican libertarian Ron Paul, that is. ``Free markets will give you 10 percent or 15 percent growth,'' he insisted. (We have 15 percent. Do I hear 20 percent?) Still, Pawlenty spinmeister Nick Ayers seemed happy that Romney had given his boss a verbal pat on the head by agreeing with him that Obama's economic remedies have slowed growth. As to Pawlenty's pie-in-the-sky assumptions, Ayers offered this finely tuned economic argument: ``We didn't go to the moon until we did. We didn't win World War II until we did.''
Speaking of the moon, Newt Gingrich asserted that if we had just turned the space program over to the private sector, we'd now have a permanent space station there as well as three or four others around the universe. On the other hand, if that program had taken after Gingrich's campaign, it would only have gotten 10 feet off the ground before crashing spectacularly back on the launching pad.
Afterwards, I asked Gingrich's spin team, which turned out to be his two grown daughters, what message it conveyed that most of the campaign's high command resigned last week. Very little, they asserted, since long-time Gingrichians remained loyal. ``Look at us,'' said daughter Jackie Cushman. ``We're still here.'' Give Cushman credit for pluck, but let's be honest: As far as viability goes, the fact that your family hasn't bailed out stops a tad short of being fully convincing.
Among the other implausibles, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann showed some polish, outperforming Herman Cain and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. But it's exceedingly hard to see her, Gingrich, Cain, Santorum, or Paul emerging as serious contenders for the nomination, let alone the presidency.
And with Pawlenty's belly-flop, only Romney had the presence and presentation of a potential president. In one particularly dreary debate segment, which found Cain and Gingrich flirting with the idea of special loyalty questions or oaths for prospective Muslim cabinet secretaries, Romney offered a mild defense of religious tolerance, plus a little common sense.
"Obviously anybody who would come into my administration would be someone who I knew, who I was comfortable with, and who I believed would honor as their highest oath their oath to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States,'' he said.
All told, Romney emerged not just unscarred but enhanced. He's now the clear frontrunner. But the search for a Romney alternative also remains wide open, which means that Huntsman has an opportunity the others mostly muffed on Monday.
Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.