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GOP presidential debate fallout: Is Mitt Romney becoming inevitable?

At Tuesday's GOP presidential debate, Mitt Romney fielded questions deftly, attacked when given an opening, and stayed out of jab-fests. Contenders so far haven't knocked him off stride.

By Staff writer / October 12, 2011

(L. to r.) Former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney, debate moderator Charlie Rose, and representative Ron Paul (R) of Texas, take the stage before a presidential debate sponsored by Bloomberg and The Washington Post held at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, Tuesday.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

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Mitt Romney may have been the big winner of last night’s Bloomberg/Washington Post GOP debate. He fielded questions deftly, attacked when given an opening, and kept his mouth shut when rivals were jabbing at one another. On Wednesday morning, a number of commentators are noting that Mr. Romney at times began to seem in some way inevitable – as if the other wannabes around the table were jockeying to be his VP.

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“Another sterling debate performance from Romney, who once again looked far more presidential than anyone on stage,” writes CBS News political analyst Brian Montopoli.

Romney had a few rough moments when he sparred with Texas Gov. Rick Perry over what fellow Republicans derisively call RomneyCare, the health-care plan he signed when governor of Massachusetts. But he parried back at Governor Perry by noting the huge number of people without health insurance in Texas. He let others attack the "9-9-9" tax plan of Herman Cain, the new member of the race’s top tier. And when pressed as to whether his former firm Bain Capital had been a job-killer, he ticked off the names of firms started with Bain money, from Sports Authority to Staples.

“If not an inside-the-park home run, it was at least a stand-up triple,” said conservative Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin in a blog post titled “Romney Crushes the Field.”

In reality Romney isn’t inevitable, of course. While he leads again in polls of likely GOP voters, his margin is small, and his total vote remains low for a front-runner. As of Wednesday morning, the RealClearPolitics rolling average of polls has him in first but as the choice of only 21.7 percent of Republicans.

Thus, the other storyline of Tuesday night’s Bloomberg/Post debate was the competition to be the primary conservative challenger to the front-runner. For the moment that mantle appears to have fallen to businessman/talk show host Herman Cain.

Once again, Mr. Cain proved to be a shrewd marketer, repeating over and over the name and simple concept of his 9-9-9 tax plan. Cain was the first of the candidates to field a question, and he worked 9-9-9 into his first three sentences – twice.

But with status comes burdens, and Cain was clearly the new Rick Perry – the target of the peloton’s attacks. His tax plan would eliminate the current Internal Revenue Service code, replacing it with a 9 percent tax on businesses, a 9 percent tax on personal income, and a 9 percent national sales tax. That last part – the national sales tax – was the particular target of the field’s ire.

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