“I'm not sure I'm the nominee yet,” Mitt Romney said during Tuesday night’s Republican presidential primary.
Well, OK. But Romney’s debate strategy didn’t hint at that much uncertainty. The former Massachusetts governor, whose performance won plaudits down the line, wasn’t desperately trying to hang on to his front-runner banner. In answers on health care, trade, and legislative practicality, he was hunting bigger game.
Evidence of that came in his acknowledgement that he was, in fact, the Massachusetts governor at one point, a full election cycle and a half ago, but chief executive of Kennedyland nonetheless. “I was the governor of a state that had a few Democrats,” he conceded. Not the bowed admission of a man frantic for votes in a Republican primary, which entertains the electoral passions of fewer Democrats.
That tack sets up Romney for a match against President Obama. While Romney may say he's unsure he’s the nominee, his approach hints at a certain confidence that he probably will be. Five things Romney did to help himself, and three things he did to hurt himself:
1. Skinny Kid With a Funny Name
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Was this line Barack Obama describing George W. Bush, or Mitt Romney describing Barack Obama? “He's divided the nation and tried to blame other people. The real course for America is to have someone who is a leader, who can identify people in both parties who care more about the country than they care about getting reelected. There are Democrats like that. There are Republicans like that.” That was Romney, on Tuesday night, sounding a lot like Obama. Conceding that there is only so much political rhetoric under the sun, Romney came perilously close to violating the Reagan Commandment by conceding that some Republicans are like some Democrats. That’s general-election talk.
2. Smiling All the Way to the Bank
While Jon Huntsman preached long-view policies with China, Romney was again confrontational. He has vowed to “clamp down” on China. When Huntsman needled, “I don’t subscribe to the Don Trump School or the Mitt Romney School of international trade,” Romney parted company with the former ambassador to China. In doing so, he also split with many of the Chamber of Commerce, establishment Republicans leery of confronting the United States’ second-largest trade partner. “If you’re not willing to stand up to China, you’ll get run over by China,” Romney said. And: “The Chinese are smiling all the way to the bank.” Antagonism toward China resonates nicely with not just the tea party’s debt concerns, but independents’ debt concerns and labor unions, who have long harbored grievances over Chinese worker treatment.
3. Health Care, I Care
Romney’s unabashed proclamation that Massachusetts supports his health care law by a 3-to-1 ratio would likely not have surfaced in a primary where he didn’t have a spray of candidates competing for votes on his right. But there it was on Tuesday night. “I'm proud of the fact that we took on a major problem in my state,” Romney said, tip-toeing through the individual-mandate tulips. The plan – which blended new insurance plans, expansions of entitlement programs, public subsidies, and stipulations aimed at cost control – served as a template for Obama’s health care expansion, a fate that Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s camp highlighted on Tuesday. It’s a hamstring pull for Romney in the primary, but an equalizing factor in the general. Which is why Romney offered a negative critique of the president’s plan, promising a repeal-and-replace mechanism, along with a defense of his own system. “We have less than 1 percent of our kids that are uninsured. You have a million kids uninsured in Texas. A million kids,” he told Perry. The compassionate conservative added, “I care about people.”