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

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    (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.
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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.

“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.

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“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.

For instance, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum noted that New Hampshire, the site of the debate, currently has no state sales tax.

“How many people here are for a sales tax in New Hampshire? Raise your hand,” said Mr. Santorum.

Given the predictable few-hands response, Santorum said that was the number of votes Cain would get in the Granite State. He said that in his opinion 9-9-9 couldn’t pass Congress.

Conservatives have long been suspicious of a national sales tax, given that it is an easy form of taxation to manipulate, by expanding or reducing its coverage and its rate. Rep. Michele Bachmann went so far as to make a (strained) analogy between the tax and, well, Satan and the 6-6-6 Mark of the Beast.

“One thing I would say is, when you take the 9-9-9 plan and you turn it upside down, I think the devil is in the details,” said Ms. Bachmann.

Cain, thus, was on the defensive for much of the evening. He did not, however, fumble his answers or appear unprepared, as Perry did in previous debates when he was the target of rival attention.

And what of Perry? He “was virtually invisible for the first half of the debate, getting little attention from moderators – a demoralizing state of affairs for a man who just one month ago was seen as the front-runner for the nomination,” wrote Mr. Montopoli of CBS.

Even conservatives who have supported Perry in the past are becoming worried about his debate performances, wrote Erick Erickson, editor of the blog RedState, in his analysis of the debate.

Perry has money and enough committed partisans to go forward. But he’s rapidly becoming the Fred Thompson of the 2012 campaign season, according to Mr. Erickson. Once seen as a formidable presence, as Mr. Thompson was last time around, Perry is quickly fading and shows few signs of trying to turn around his debate presence.

“Perry supporters are emailing me in abject panic,” said Erickson.

As to the rest of the field, Newt Gingrich had a decent night, directing a respectful yet pointed question to Romney about his economic plan and drawing attention by saying that former Sen. Chris Dodd and current Rep. Barney Frank might need to be jailed for their roles in passing bank reform legislation.

Jon Huntsman Jr. got off both the best and worst jokes of the night. He noted that when he’d first heard of Cain’s 9-9-9 he thought “it was the price of a pizza,” drawing laughter from the crowd. (Cain is the former head of a national pizza chain.) But he also made a puzzling reference when asking Romney a question, saying it would be about the economy, the theme of the debate, as opposed to religion.

“Sorry about that Rick,” said Mr. Huntsman, turning to Perry.

This was a reference to an incident in which a Perry supporter publicly referred to Mormons as part of a “cult.” Both Huntsman and Romney are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but the joke was too obscure and fell flat.

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