Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney didn't exactly wow observers of Thursday night's GOP debate, and he didn't exactly disappoint them, either. Romney has always had trouble connecting with voters and shaking off his white-collar image, but the two-time presidential candidate has learned how to hold his own on camera and deflect potshots from opponents, while also making a few deft stabs of his own. Thursday night, he even got a few off-the-cuff jokes in.
But with the conservative, Tea Party oriented side of the GOP divided, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry failing to impress, Romney's path to the nomination is looking brighter.
As expected, Romney and Perry continued to tussle on Romney's Massachusetts healthcare law, Social Security, and immigration. Romney kept up his attacks on Perry, accusing him of flip-flopping on whether Social Security needs to be reformed or abolished. "There's a Rick Perry out there that is saying—and almost to quote—it says that the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business, that it's unconstitutional," Romney said. "So you better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that." Perry returned fire by blasting the healthcare overhaul law Romney passed in Massachusetts. Romney didn't break new ground—he raised points he's raised in several previous debates—but his onslaught, along with shots at the Perry from others on the stage, got the Texas governor on the defensive, and highlighted his still-muddled positions on Social Security and economic recovery. He's still taking shots from most of the field of candidates, and the beating took a toll as the debate wore on. A puzzling answer on the threat of nuclear weapons in Pakistan made Perry look unprepared on foreign policy.
With the Romney-Perry battle becoming familiar, the second-tier candidates may have been one of the big stories of Thursday night's debate. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann continues to fade, but businessman Herman Cain and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum both gave energetic performances. Santorum likely appealed to conservatives who long for a return to the muscular foreign policy of the Bush years, an uncommon theme in the currently isolationist-minded GOP. "We should be fighting wars to win, not fighting wars for politics," Santorum said, regarding Iraq and Afghanistan. Texas Rep. Ron Paul appealed to his base of libertarian supporters, and is now joined by former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. But any long-shot candidate gaining ground spells trouble for Perry. Each vote for Bachmann, Cain, Santorum, or one of the other conservative candidates such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is a vote which comes from the constituency of conservative Romney skeptics which should be Perry's base. Perry needs a knockout to establish himself as the clear front-runner, and in three debates he's failed to do so.
Perry also took a beating on immigration, perhaps his weakest spot in the GOP race. But it also may have produced his most memorable line. Defending his position that children who were brought into the country illegally should be able to pay in-state tuition, he excoriated his critics. "If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," he said. For a moment, Perry looked like the most moderate candidate on the stage. But that may not help him in a GOP primary.
Both Perry and Romney have significant weaknesses. Romney's shift from moderate positions on issues like gay rights, gun control, and gay marriage have left him him branded a flip-flopper, and his healthcare law, similar to Obama's healthcare law, looked like it might have been his fatal flaw this time around. The moderate immigration policies Perry supported as governor aren't necessarily an Achilles heal--Arizona Sen. John McCain won the GOP nomination in 2008 despite his support of the much-reviled McCain-Kennedy immigration bill in 2006. More troubling for Perry is the perception that, overall, he's too extreme to win a national election, and that he's not quite ready for prime-time scrutiny. Thursday night did little to defuse that issue, and Romney still has the most to gain from Perry's failure to launch.