GOP Debate Solidifies Romney's Frontrunner Status

Romney is best positioned to pull off this 2012 dance to the White House.

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In the run-up to last night’s Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich’s campaign ended in everything but name.

Tim Pawlenty, meanwhile, unsuccessfully attempted to become a frontline candidate. His economic plan earned howls of derision from mainstream economists, left and right, and was taken seriously only in the most Kool Aid-besotted corners of the intellectual right.

Like a dogwalker who’s forgotten his plastic baggie, he simply left behind the turd and kept moving.

Next came a trial balloon of an attack on Mitt Romney: that, in the realm of healthcare, the former Massachusetts governor played a sort of John the Baptist role to Obama’s Jesus. “Obamneycare,” Pawlenty called the new healthcare law—only to furiously, and awkwardly, soften the blow in his first face-to-face encounter with Romney since launching the balloon. [See a slide show of GOP 2012 contenders.]

Newsflash, Tim: The “Obamneycare” coinage won’t catch on unless you really mean it.

With Gingrich finished almost as soon as he started, and Pawlenty sputtering badly in his first attempt to pick up speed, Rep. Michele Bachmann officially took the plunge—adding her number to the ranks of the unelectable alongside kooky Ron Paul; Romney clone Jon Huntsman; Rick “I guess bestiality is next” Santorum; and Herman “right of whose return?” Cain. [Check out political cartoons about the 2012 GOP field.]

For Republicans inclined to Tea Party maximalism, Bachmann’s candidacy is like a promise of help on the way. For everyone else, it sounds more like “Nearer My God To Thee” on the deck of the Titanic.

Needless to say, Romney is actually beginning to look like the frontrunner. Recent polls reflect this, as did Romney himself in an assured debate performance.

His only serious rival, at this point, is Sarah Palin, the acuteness of whose absence last night could only have been exceeded by her presence. But Palin shrewdly realizes that she has nothing to gain from participating in meaningless early debates; with her name recognition already high, and her poll numbers relatively strong, there is no need to risk uttering more gaffes or otherwise reminding people that she’s not very bright. [Vote now: Who won Monday night's GOP debate?]

And so she waits, stalking.

How does Romney redeem his frontrunner chit?

Thus far, he’s saying the requisite things about repealing Obamacare, rejecting American declinism, and renewing the engine of job creation. Not insignificantly, Romney has also demonstrated that he’ll be second to none in the fundraising department.

Talk of Romney’s history of flip-flopping and heresies like, well, Obamneycare, seems to me overblown. If the GOP swallowed John McCain in 2008, it will live with Romney in 2012—especially if, as seems likely, he emerges as the only candidate who can slay the dreaded Obama beast.

The more interesting aspect of Romney’s campaign is how he’s sounded what I’ll call the Mainstream Dog Whistle. Case in point: his acceptance of the scientific consensus on global warming, which promptly elicited the wrath of Rush Limbaugh. This was a brilliant double-dip on Romney’s part: He demonstrated sanity to the commentariat, while reassuring industry stakeholders and the public—which does not take global warming seriously enough to make sacrifices to address it—that he won’t make any moves unless other major carbon emitters (namely, India and China) move with us.

It seems to me that, of all this season’s Republican aspirants, Romney is best positioned to pull off this dance: He’ll be as bad (in the Dennis Rodman sense of “bad”) as he needs to be in the primaries, leaving the truly nutty stuff to the likes of Palin and Bachmann; and then, come general-election time, comfortably re-assume the role of technocratic problem-solver.

As far as the Mormon issue goes, I’ll say this: The country already has elected a man thought by an alarmingly high number of Americans to be a Muslim. And if in 2012 the unemployment rate still hovers at 9 percent, it would entertain voting for a Martian.

  • See a slide show of who's running and who's not in the Republican primaries.
  • Enjoy political cartoons about the 2012 Republican field.
  • Vote now: Who won Monday night's GOP debate?