Wednesday night's “Your Money, Your Vote” GOP debate should have made one thing clear: The race for the Republican nomination is over.
Mitt Romney is going to be running against Barack Obama in 2012.
The first and most obvious causality of the night was Texas Governor Rick Perry. Unable to recall his own talking points when asked how he would reduce the budget deficit, Perry admitted flat-out that he couldn't remember one of only three federal agencies that he would eliminate, backtracking on a later question to mention that he wanted to cut the Department of Energy.
[See here for the Perry video and to further debate Rick Perry]
Despite his ability to communicate his message clearly, Jon Huntsman was unable to get any kind of reaction from the crowd, mirroring his performance in the polls and his portrayal in the media. And this is primarily due to his message being unpalatable for most of the Republican Party, whether it is his support for stricter financial regulations or restrained foreign policy (not to mention the fact that he once worked for President Barack Obama). The “pandering” exchange, when Huntsman accused Romney of going for the easy answer when it came to trade relations with China, showed that even when Huntsman has the better argument, Romney is more ready to say what the people want to hear.
Herman Cain showed just how far his 9-9-9 tax plan could carry him, which, apparently, wasn't any further than rehashing the components of his 9-9-9 tax plan. Even when given questions totally unrelated to the tax code and being told specifically by the moderators not to mention the plan, Cain tried to paint 9-9-9 as a panacea for any and all problems with the economy. Cain is still Romney's biggest competition in the polls, and his popularity showed when the audience booed moderator Maria Bartiromo for her question addressing recent sexual harassment allegations against him; however, Cain will find it extremely difficult to transform this surge in public support into a longer term threat for the well-established Romney.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) ended up in similar territory to Cain, slipping into old rhetorical devices rather than laying out a tangible plan to “reduce $1 trillion” in federal spending that he claimed he could do in his first year in office. While popular with the audience and with commenters on the CNBC and Washington Post live blogs during the debate, Paul's views are simply too far removed from those of mainstream Republicans and even more alien to mainstream Americans to garner him enough support for a presidential campaign.
Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann might as well have stayed home. Bachmann needed a miracle to reclaim any ground in the polls, and Santorum has been near the bottom of the polls despite relentless campaigning. Both were dead air, with Bachmann making roundabout calls for deregulation and a fence on the Mexican border while Santorum just tried to say “manufacturing” as many times as possible.
The same can be said for Newt Gingrich. His combativeness and wit have been garnering him a lot of attention lately, but when he repeatedly snapped at the moderators, taking far more than 30 seconds to explain why he can't explain his health care plan in 30 seconds, he seemed out of touch and arrogant.
Which brings us to Romney. If it wasn't obvious from the preceding paragraphs, Romney is hands-down the smartest candidate for the GOP to field in 2012. At this stage in the campaign“usually there’s a loser in a debate, not necessarily a winner,” and Romney's competition is a bunch of losers. You don't have to consider his poll numbers, or his experience, or his performance in the debate (which was strong but not phenomenal); not standing out is why Romney stands out in this field. If Huntsman had a bigger campaign, better stage presence, greater name recognition and less moderate views, or if Cain had more political experience and a diversified campaign platform either one of them might be able to pose a challenge.
Instead, Romney will basically be given the nomination by default.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore