If you’re wondering why Mitt Romney -- despite a health care record that’s anathema to the Republican party, a history of flip-flopping on issues dear to conservatives, and an awkward style on the stump -- is viewed as the most likely GOP nominee in 2012, the answer can be found in a one-word response by one of his rivals in Tuesday’s debate.
Rick Perry was trying to answer a question about which three federal departments he would eliminate. He came up with two – education and commerce – and then he was stumped. “Oops,’’ he said, in what will surely go down as one of the most uncomfortable moments in the 2012 primary. “I sure stepped in it,’’ the Texas governor acknowledged after the debate.
The crackup by the candidate once seen as the biggest threat to Romney’s candidacy reflects the greased path the former Massachusetts governor now seems to face. In contrast to the last nationally televised debate, when Romney got unusually flustered by Perry’s questions about his former landscaping company that employed illegal immigrants, Wednesday’s debate broadcast by CNBC from Michigan was a cakewalk for the former Massachusetts governor.
In response to a question from moderator John Harwood about his apparently shifting stance on the government bailouts of the auto industry in 2009, Romney declared, “I think people understand I’m a man of steadiness and constancy.’’
That statement -- from a candidate who has repositioned himself on abortion, gay rights, climate change, immigration, gun control, and most recently, a referendum on labor rights in Ohio -- went completely unchallenged.
Only two months before the first nominating contest in Iowa, the only opponentchallenging Romney in the polls is Herman Cain, whose unlikely course to the nomination is now bogged down by mounting questions about whether he sexually harassed former employees.
In another example of Romney’s lucky breaks during Wednesday’s debate, he, along with all of the other candidates, was asked to quickly outline what he would do after repealing President Obama’s signature health care legislation.
“Healthcare in 30 seconds is a little tough. But let me try,’’ said Romney – even though a prolonged debate over health care is the last thing his risk-averse campaign would welcome. Aside from a mild swipe by Rick Santorum, Romney was never forced to defend the centerpiece of the health insurance plan he instituted in Massachusetts, the requirement that people buy insurance. That’s the same “individual mandate’’ that Republicans insist makes Obama’s plan a disaster, not to mention unconstitutional.
Even Jon Huntsman, who has clamored to take shots at Romney and recently compared him to a weather vane in an Internet video, shied away from confrontation Wednesday night. Asked if Romney was pandering when he vows to brand China a currency manipulator and slap on new tariffs, Huntsman hemmed and hawed.
This is not to say that Romney has not made his own breaks in this campaign. He is a far superior candidate than he was in 2008, much more confident and fluent in the debates. Asked about collaborating with the late Democratic Ted Kennedy on health care and raising fees to balance the budget in Massachusetts, Romney swiftly pivoted to talking points about the national debt and attacking Obama.
“It's unbelievable that we have the crisis going on in America we have and we have a president who is focused on trying to get himself re-elected,’’ Romney said, once again looking past his Republican rivals and positioning himself as a formidable general election opponent.