Romney still on top after Republican GOP debate

No one really laid a glove on him in the New Hampshire roundtable “debate” Tuesday night. Mitt Romney looked Presidential. He had the right balance of certitude and affability. He was confident but not angry. After years of flip-flopping, and despite being wrong in some of his assertions, he at long last projects consistency. After all these years of campaigning, months as putative front-runner, Romney really seems to have found himself. It’s remarkable how far an unnuanced combination of mechanistic touting of a balanced budget amendment, deregulatory zeal, China-bashing and no cut military budgets has carried him. But there remains little enthusiasm for him. He is the preferred choice of far fewer Republicans than other GOP front runners at a comparable point of time in recent history.

Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, once seen as a formidable opponent of Romney, may turn out to have been something of a flash-in-the pan. While he avoided the melt-down of his previous debate performance, Perry was phlegmatic and skated the surface of issues. The moderator, the estimable Charlie Rose, was quoted in a post debate interview as observing that Perry never made eye contact with him, which would have indicated Perry wanted to re-engage in the conversation. But, if Perry can continue to raise money as he did last quarter, he will have staying power, regardless of his debate performances.

Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfathers’ Pizza, is strong on crust but light on filling. Still, it is remarkable that, in some polls, he has risen to the top with Romney, largely on strong debate performance and his ability to market his 9-9-9 plan for replacing our current tax structure with 9 percent each of corporate taxes, personal income and national sales taxes. His plan, sounding simple and novel to those without a sense of history, is merely a combination of old flat tax and “fair tax” nostrums, without details. As highly credentialed Republican policy analyst Bruce Barlett wrote in the New York Times, “The poor would pay more while the rich would have their taxes cut, with no guarantee that economic growth will increase and good reason to believe that the budget deficit will increase.”

Former Idaho Governor Jon Huntsman, is more of an authentic moderate than Romney and should do well with New Hampshire voters. But in debates, that are key in forming first impressions, and with a primary party electorate still heavily animated by the Tea Party agenda, he doesn’t emerge as a force to be reckoned with.

Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann remain also rans and contributed little to the dynamics on Tuesday night. Libertarian Paul has an intensely loyal core following, and Bachmann could theoretically be the heir to a sizeable part of the Sarah Palin vote, but neither seems to be gaining traction. Rick Santorum’s “family values” campaign added even less to the debate.

Charlie Rose did a great job of keeping the focus consistently on the economy, following up with the candidates when warranted and still not making himself the center of attention. The other questioners did well. The format was the best of any debate to date, though I’d still have liked more drill down in the follow-ups and less of the candidates answering questions with non-responsive stump speech sound bites.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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