(REAL TIMES MEDIA)—Last week’s debate amongst the Republican hopefuls was a spectacle for many reasons. First, it was (fingers crossed) the first of the Republican debates where everyone who actually wants to run for the nomination was actually in attendance. Nearly half the debates for the GOP nom so far have had glaring absences of major players in the campaign. Now the field is set. The debate also featured another interesting discovery that theretofore had been missing during the entire campaign season: Mitt Romney’s spine. Unfortunately though he may have found it too late to make any difference in campaign 2012.
Until last Wednesday Mitt Romney was the accidental front-runner in the GOP nomination race by virtue of a few incidental facts, 1.) He already had high name recognition from 2008, 2.) The rest of the field seemed utterly dull and 3.) He had a pretty good message for a challenger. Romney was actually beating the pants off his competition. However Romney was always too cautious a candidate to really inspire any excitement. While most candidates come out swinging he came out measuring his bat. While other candidates ran from event to event to raise their profile and get out their message Romney was content to give speeches and pick and choose where he would appear. When you launch your campaign making it clear you will not really compete in Iowa because you think you’ve got a better chance in New Hampshire, it doesn’t inspire millions to follow you into campaign battle. When you skip debates because as a “frontrunner” you are more worried about losing your lead than defeating your opponents on stage, that’s not a good sign either. Nevertheless the softy approach that “Mittens” employed allowed him to maintain a lead until the Iowa Straw Poll, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry broke onto the scene and made it clear that he was taking on all comers.
Ironically heading into last week’s debate, Perry’s first appearance campaign strategy would’ve suggested that the two men flip strategies. Gov. Perry, the frontrunner should have gone into the debate with a ‘win by not losing’ attitude. So long as he didn’t say or do anything crazy he would maintain his lead over the other seven pretenders on the stage. On the other hand Romney, now knocked back to second place by 10 points would be compelled by conventional wisdom to have both barrels loaded and go all out against Perry. The result? The men reversed roles and in the process Mitt Romney put on his best most presidential performance of the entire campaign season.
Rick Perry came to bring the pain to everyone in the debate from the start. He had a little sumthin’ sumthin’ for everyone on stage and made it clear that he wasn’t just running to beat Obama but crush the opposition as well. Most frontrunners politely ignore their fellow primary candidates or just banter on the surface policy level, not Perry. He struck a blow against Mitt Romney with his now infamous “Michael Dukakis created jobs three times as fast as you did Mitt” giving the cautious campaigner his first bloody lip since the season started. But in a shocking sign of life and gumption Romney responded in kind pointing out that not only had the governor prior to Perry done a better job of creating jobs than him, but that he was essentially living off the good work of previous Republican governors rather than charting his own path. Smack+Down! But Mitt Romney didn’t stop there, for the rest of the debate he parried with Perry on every turn, attacking him on his now problematic stand against Social Security and at the same time giving him a painfully gracious pass on Governor Perry’s HPV vaccine mandate in Texas. Overall it looked like Romney actually wanted to win for once. Prior to Rick Perry’s appearance Romney looked like a man scared to face the campaign trail; against Perry he looked like he was ready to lead. If he can maintain that level of attack and grace he just might pull this thing off.
Of course the primary is really only half the battle, and while discovering that actually wanting the job is helpful, both GOP contenders have one harsh truth to deal with. Obama is at his lowest approval in his entire three years in office, and he is STILL tied or leading both of them in national polls. The president won’t be down for long, so if Mitt wants to do the heavy lifting of taking out the president he better keep working that backbone.
(Dr. Jason Johnson is an associate professor at Hiram College in Ohio.)