After the FoxNews/Google debate, it had begun to crystallize in the view of many Republicans is that Rick Perry isn’t the candidate many had hoped. Capturing the straw poll in Florida on Saturday, Herman Cain reached new heights as Perry’s slide down hill has accelerated. Bachmann has peaked and begun to taper off, while Gingrich, Paul, Santorum and Huntsman continue to struggle in the middle-to-low single digits. This leaves Mitt Romney out front, not because he’s such a great candidate, but because to date, his chief opponents have grossly underperformed. This begs the question most conservatives want most to ask: Is Mitt Romney capable of carrying the conservative banner into battle a year from now? Most conservatives seem to believe the answer is a firm “no,” but it nevertheless leaves Romney in the position of the last candidate standing. He’s done nothing revolutionary or proactive to seize the lead or stay at or near the front of the pack, but instead seems to have landed in the lead by default. If we’re to defeat Barack Obama in November 2012, it’s going to take a stronger candidate than Mr. Romney has been to date.
When you examine his debate performance, the best you can say about Romney is that he hasn’t gotten into serious trouble, but he has flipped and flopped to the extent that most conservatives are looking elsewhere. Mr. Cain’s straw poll victory on Saturday demonstrates the point: While Romney doesn’t spend much energy on straw polls, knowing he will not win them in front of a conservative audience that constitutes the base of the party, and the overwhelming majority at straw poll events, he believes it’s better to avoid energetic participation and score poorly than to engage fully and still score a a small proportion of support. He realizes the infinitely larger black eye that embarrassment would confer on his campaign.
What this demonstrates, perhaps more than anything, is Mr. Romney’s complete lack of courage for a fight. He’s not even willing to make his pitch to conservatives, and that means he knows he cannot win their support except by virtue of being the only candidate remaining. His unspectacular campaign mirrors his less-than-thrilling debate performances inasmuch as while he says nothing particularly offensive, he also fails to inspire even a tepid response. In short, Romney’s strategy is to cruise carefully while avoiding clear debacles, and hope to survive to lead at the end, knowing that the anti-Obama sentiment prevailing among Republicans will be enough to carry him through the nomination. That may be a suitable strategy for winning the nomination, but it’s unlikely to win the Presidency in 2012.
In Thursday night’s debate, Romney got into a battle with Perry who was busy criticizing the former Massachusetts governor’s health-care plan, and challenged him on changing between what he had said in his book and what he has been saying on the campaign trail about the plan’s possible application for the entire nation. Romney said:
“I said no such thing”
and that “Romneycare” was merely:
“a state plan for a state.”
The problem with this statement by Romney is that he knew it to be untrue. While in paperback, the idea that his health-care reform plan might have national application was omitted, the fact is that in his original hard-bound book, No Apology, it was clearly stated:
“We can accomplish the same thing for everyone in the country.”
Either Romney was lying, or he hadn’t read any but the paperback version of his book. That puts his jab at Perry into better context:
“I actually – I actually wrote my book, and in my book I said no such thing.”
What Romney sought to imply about Perry’s book is that he hadn’t written it himself, and while that may very well be true, it calls into question if Mitt remembers writing his own. This illustrates the problem with Romney too, because for all intents and purposes, he’s just another well-polished, glad-handing politician who is at least vaguely conservative, but to the conservative base, this speaks volumes about his lack of credibility across the board because it strongly implies a basic dishonesty in Romney’s approach and his policy positions.
This is the likely cause of Herman Cain’s runaway Florida GOP Straw Poll victory on Saturday. In addition to the poor or at best fair performances of the two alleged front-runners in the Thursday night debate, combined with his own compelling performance, Cain suddenly looks a good deal more attractive to voters than to these two. Better, if Cain continues to press forward, there is some chance that Romney will be forced to abandon his strategy of winning by default.
- Cain: 37%
- Perry: 15%
- Romney: 14%
- Santorum: 11%
- Paul: 10%
This result is a testament to Cain’s strong performance in Thursday’s debate, but it also speaks volumes about the lack-luster performance of the supposed front-runners. If Romney pursues his current course of avoiding engagement much longer, he risks falling into single digit territory particularly if there is a later entry into this race. Perry is self-destructing, and while he does so, Romney plans to capitalize mostly by doing exactly nothing. We Republicans should ask ourselves if that is the sort of candidate we expect to defeat Barack Obama as well as restore the nation now floundering economically under the weight of programs of the same sort Romney has himself implemented in his own state. Perhaps this is key: When asked during the debate if he thought Obama was a socialist, he vacillated to avoid a direct answer.
With a general election on the horizon that promises a billion dollars of Obama campaign cash, we simply can’t afford another nominee who will not engage fully in this fight. Romney may win the nomination by default, but he can’t win the general election that way, and the conservative base of the party knows it. If he won’t speak the truth now, talking to the base of his party, will he ever? If not, how does he intend to distinguish himself from Barack Obama? These are the questions Mitt Romney must answer, but chances are that like most everything else, he’ll take a pass and hope to win by default.