Mitt Romney has tremendous vulnerabilities as a presidential candidate, but those weaknesses won’t matter unless one of his rivals tries to exploit them. Tonight, he skated past questions on the health care law he signed as governor and on his record of flip-flopping on abortion, because none of his opponents were willing to challenge him.
This made for an especially weak showing by Tim Pawlenty, who talked tough in a television appearance on Fox News Sunday when he used the term “Obamneycare” to describe the Obama/Romney approach to health care. But when given a chance, repeatedly, to elaborate, Pawlenty wimped out. In addition to letting Romney get away with his flawed explanations for his disastrous health care legislation in Massachusetts, Pawlenty came off looking weak – like the guy who criticizes you behind your back and cowers in front of your face. It was sort of like Ronald Reagan’s “I am paying for this microphone” moment in New Hampshire, only in reverse.
During the 2008 campaign, one of the biggest problems Romney had was that he built up resentment among his rivals by not only reversing himself on a host of issues, but then attacking all his opponents for being insufficiently conservative on the issues he had just converted on. This came back to haunt him down the stretch, particularly as Mike Huckabee and John McCain effectively teamed up against Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire. But tonight, Romney was affable, and complimentary to all of his rivals, and specifically to Pawlenty. This had a disarming effect, and it also allowed him to concentrate his fire on the real opponent, President Obama.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who announced during the debate that she would be running for president, also had a strong showing. Though she’s portrayed in the media as a lightweight, she came across polished, knowledgeable and quite comfortable during the debate. The only thing that had me a bit confused was when she said that she wouldn’t interfere with a state that wanted to legalize gay marriage, but yet she’d support a federal marriage amendment. The 2004 version of that amendment read, “Marriage in the United States shall consist solely of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman.” If Bachmann catches fire, it could be particularly damaging to Pawlenty, who needs a strong showing in Iowa have a chance against Romney.
None of the other candidates on stage: Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, or Herman Cain particularly distinguished themselves.
In my headline, I named Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who didn’t participate, as another winner in the debate. And by mentioning Perry, I use him as a stand-in for any other Republican candidate who may be contemplating a late entry in the race. Romney may have established himself as the frontrunner tonight, but he remains incredibly vulnerable. So there’s still a huge opening for another candidate.