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The Bloomberg-Washington Post Debate: Flavors of the Week and the Romney Inevitability

October 12, 2011
Governor Mitt Romney of MA

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Another Republican debate, another chapter in what has become a familiar storyline in the campaign for the Republican nomination. Candidates enter the race, or spark a new wave of excitement and surge in the polls, and they quickly become candidate of the week. The first iteration of this shooting star candidate was Michele Bachmann, whose Ames Straw Poll victory rocketed her from relative obscurity to the ‘top-tier’ of the primary race. Increased scrutiny, political gaffes and her inability to capitalize on the exposure afforded to top tier candidates led to her quick decline, and in most recent polls she is mired in the low single digits. Rick Perry burst onto the scene as the anointed front-runner, surpassing Romney and the rest of the field quickly, only to have a string of lackluster debate performances and a conspicuous lack of specific policy proposals cause his reign as the candidate du-jour to be almost as short as the time it took him to become the presumptive front-runner.

Herman Cain is the latest version of the ’emerging front-runner that could challenge Mitt Romney‘ storyline. His win at the Florida Straw poll, a string of solid debate performances and surging poll numbers have flung him into the center spotlight of the Republican primary. The Bloomberg-Washington Post debate took place right at the crescendo of Cain’s apparent rise to become Romney’s primary challenger for the Republican nomination. In the debate, the forces that serve to end each new candidates cinderella story were on display, increased scrutiny, more direct challenges from other candidates, and raised expectations were all on full display at Dartmouth on Tuesday.

Virtually all of the other candidates made some mention of Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, and one of the video prompts dealt with the plan. In the segment where each candidate poses one question to another aspiring Republican nominee, Ron Paul asked Cain if he was still blase about the need to audit the fed, and whether he stood by his past criticism of Paul and others calling for increased transparency of the Federal Reserve. Even the physical setup of the debate conveyed this shifting power structure, as Cain was moved to the center with Romney in response to the latest polls, with Perry being physically shuffled off to the periphery in what must have been an all-too-tangible reminder of his fall from grace in the primary season.

Through all of the tumultuous comings and goings from other candidates bestowed with the title of ‘serious contender to Mitt Romney’, there the former governor from Massachusetts remains. Far from being perturbed by the seemingly continual search for a viable alternative, Romney seems to embrace these candidates who cause a stir, and he was even surprisingly welcoming to Chris Christie and Sarah Palin before they decided against jumping into the Presidential race.

Romney does passively look on as Bachmann, Perry and Cain each in turn surge in the polls and the eyes of the media because of altruism, nor does he welcome these ‘flavor of the week’ candidates because of some inherent weakness. No, Romney welcomes the rampant speculation, and the well-worn rush to crown a new top-tier candidate each week because he is the one who benefits most from this political sideshow. During each of these candidates meteoric rise and fall, Romney has remained, shielded from direct challenges in the debates, and heightened media scrutiny as everyone else rushes to scrutinize and chop the newcomer down to size.

Jonathan Martin of Politico explains how this played out in the most recent debate, which ended with Romney:

“standing above an increasingly muddled group of rivals. Aided by a group of competitors who’ve risen and fallen — or not run altogether — the former Massachusetts governor’s steady-as-he-goes strategy has returned him to unqualified front-runner status.”

With much of the attention at the debate directed at Herman Cain and his 9-9-9 plan (a post analyzing this plan is forthcoming), Romney emerged virtually unscathed from the debate, avoiding too many direct challenges, and having well-prepared answers to the few issues he knows he will be challenged on.

His whole strategy for the debate can be examined through two moments. The first, when a fading Perry tried to come after him on Romneycare, the former governor nimbly turned it into a referendum on Perry’s record on healthcare in Texas by contrasting the very high numbers of Texas children who are uninsured to the very high rates of coverage in Massachusetts, and framing the issue as one of a states’ right to pursue the healthcare solutions that it wants to.

In the second, when Romney had the opportunity to ask another candidate one question, instead of trying to quell rising tides of support for Herman Cain or extinguish the last flickering flames of Perry’s brief stint in the top-tier, Romney turned to Michele Bachmann, one of the least threatening candidates to Romney, to ask her to expand on her economic policy. His question was designed to prop up one of the flagging candidates, and one who Romney does not view as  real threat, because he recognizes that the more candidates that are in the race, especially that appeal to the tea party-conservative wing of the party, the better for Mitt Romney’s presidential aspirations.

This primary season, Romney has set himself apart from the other candidates with his consistently solid debate performances and a record that has already been intensely scrutinized and will not offer up many unpleasant surprises. As such, it is looking more and more like Romney will push on through the seemingly endless cycle of candidates of the week, and barring some change in the narrative, he will emerge as the Republican nominee, for better or worse.

One caveat to this seeming inevitability, is that there is decidedly more uncertainty regarding what direction the race will take once the stable of potential flavors of the week is depleted. Once Herman Cain suffers from the inevitable backlash that actual analysis of his 9-9-9 plan and his troubling lack of knowledge about foreign policy, will bring about, there is a dwindling supply of remaining candidates to serve as the successive flashes in the pan that have sustained the narrative so far. What happens when some candidates are forced to drop out, and Romney is no longer able to remain out of the fray, remains to be seen, but Romney’s eventual nomination is looking more inevitable with each anointed challenger.

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