How lucky can one guy be?
Hours after snagging a key endorsement from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Mitt Romney continued to dominate the GOP debates and solidify his standing as the front-runner for the GOP nomination. And while the Republican desire to see anyone besides the former Massachusetts governor as its nominee remains as strong as ever, the anti-Romney forces have proven unable to coalesce around a single opponent as the rest of the field stands divided, hacking itself to death.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, once seen as a formidable challenger to Romney, missed another crucial chance to impress voters. Much of the debate centered on businessman Herman Cain and his "9-9-9" tax reform plan, and the focus likely showed that the former Godfather's Pizza CEO is more than a flavor of the month candidate. But can he seriously challenge Romney for the nomination? Can anyone?
Romney is enjoying the momentum and establishment support of being a front-runner without the heightened scrutiny that is normally its cost. At Tuesday night's debate, sponsored by Bloomberg and the Washington Post and held at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, the candidates spent much more time discussing, Cain's tax plan than, say, Romney's problematic healthcare overhaul program in Massachusetts.
The former governor of Massachusetts occasionally opened up some tempting targets, but no one hit them. When asked about the bailout of the banks, Romney didn't try to talk his way around his past support, but ended up giving a rather passionate defense of the logic behind the controversial policy. "My experience tells me that we were on the precipice, and we could have had a complete meltdown of our entire financial system, wiping out all the savings of the American people," Romney said, of the 2008 economic crisis. "So action had to be taken." That has been Romney's position since the bailouts were first passed by Congress, but since then they've become a reviled symbol of bloated federal government excess, especially for the Tea Party movement. But none of the other candidates took advantage of Romney's blasphemy, with Cain actually agreeing with him. (He, too, initially supported the bailout.) When the debate moderators gave candidates a chance to ask each other questions, many questioned Romney over his background and economic plans, but no one really landed a punch.
Perry's performance in the last debate, two weeks ago, left observers unimpressed, leading many to view Tuesday night's debate as a do-or-die moment for him. But if his last appearance was underwhelming, Tuesday night's was a disaster. Perry seemed flummoxed and lethargic. While others embraced the chaotic, round-table debate format by improvising, Perry found himself off-screen for long stretches of time. Awkwardly working a simple pitch for more domestic energy production into every answer, no matter the question, Perry did nothing to show that he's getting serious about policy. He also failed to land any blows against Romney. A weak shot against Romney's healthcare plan in Massachusetts only gave the frontrunner a chance to give a cogent defense of his plan. Perry never mentioned one of the key elements which makes Romney's plan and the national plan passed by President Obama so similar—the individual mandate included in both programs which requires all citizens to purchase healthcare insurance. About the only bright news for Perry is that this debate took place in New Hampshire, where he's unlikely to win anyway, and was only broadcast on Bloomberg TV, not a widely watched cable networks.
Of the other candidates, Cain fared the best. Single-mindedly pitching his "9-9-9" plan, he couldn't stop from grinning at how often he was able to make it the central focus of the debate. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann were the lead critics of the plan, accusing the former pizza magnate of wanting to naively give the government another way to tax its citizens by implementing a 9 percent federal sales tax. Texas Rep. Ron Paul also blasted Cain, a former member of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, for being insufficiently skeptical of the fed, but Cain managed to deflect most of the blows.