A cardinal rule of politics -- that endorsements are not worth the backslap they come with -- was broken Tuesday night during the Bloomberg-Washington Post debate at Dartmouth College, where Mitt Romney owned the night.
The difference was that Romney walked in with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, the Republican Party’s man of the moment, at his side. Christie gave Romney the nod just hours before, when his endorsement was at peak value. In general, candidates have to go begging for endorsements while endorsers take their time shopping around for the highest bid: a prime time speaking role at the party’s convention; a cabinet post, if not the vice presidency; a plane. By the time they’re done looking, the endorsement’s depreciated.
This endorsement was given so soon and so strategically, the result was emotional trickle-down. The most unloved of front-runners got some of Christie’s spillover, and with it, Romney broke free from his cramped and cautious self. He was confident, expansive, authoritative and loose-as-a-goose funny.
I know, I know. He’s the stiff guy from Bain Capital LLC who happily fired your brother-in-law; how could he possibly be amusing? I swear he was, and it’s a big piece that’s been missing from his campaign. People who know Romney insist he has a sense of humor -- but they said that about Al Gore, too.
When Romney tries to be a regular Joe, he falls flat, saying things like “I’m unemployed, too” to ordinary folks who probably don’t think that being a full-time presidential candidate and multi-millionaire is much like being jobless and destitute. Or he yuks it up by pretending that a diner waitress pinched his fanny. (Yes, he really did that.)
Lightness of Being
But there he was cracking three jokes, by my count, an indoor record for him and maybe for any debate. What we regard as funny are usually canned lines, like the not-quite-original “My next-door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration” from former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson in the last debate.
Maybe you had to be there, but Romney combined a lightness of being with a seriousness of purpose that allowed him to break with conservative orthodoxy and explain why the financial bailout was a necessary evil. He dispensed Governor Rick Perry of Texas without tangling with him, reminding him during an easygoing defense of Romneycare, that Perry had a million uninsured children in his state, hardly a record to be proud of.
For his part, Perry looked not like the doofus who couldn’t spit out a logical sentence in the last debate, but like the student who sits in the last row of class and hopes the teacher doesn’t call on him. His answer to most questions was “energy” or “jobs;” sometimes both. He claimed to have an economic plan ready for release, but gave no sign that anyone had told him what is in it.
Then there was Herman Cain, who just might extend his boomlet through Iowa, where caucus-goers don’t mind using their votes to make a point, as Mike Huckabee could tell you. Cain’s repetitive hyping of his 9-9-9 plan came perilously close to a Ron Popeil infomercial for his Showtime Rotisserie (“Set it and forget it!”). An African-American former pizza executive who proposes taxing the beer that goes with a large pepperoni, not to mention bread and milk, will not win the nomination of the Republican Party, which has been more white, but never more tax-phobic, in its history.
When Cain tried to burn Romney, criticizing his 59-point economic plan for being too long and complicated, Romney shined. He explained that there’s such a thing as being too simple, and therefore inadequate to the task of saving a sinking economy.
Romney has a double-digit lead in New Hampshire, and his head-to-head numbers against Obama are impressive, including a 55 percent to 37 percent lead among independents in a recent Gallup poll. To help his campaign, Romney is hoovering up Christie’s cash, with many of Christie’s New York money men moving over.
Nature (and the media) abhors a static campaign, and there will still be some surprises along the way. Perry has raised $17 million and could do significant damage investing it in ads in Iowa and New Hampshire about Romney’s pro-choice, pro-health-care, technocratic past. The statute of limitations on Romney’s crimes of reason may still have a few years left. But among the eight candidates on stage Tuesday, Romney was the only one who looked electable. What’s more, he looked human. That’s a lot to get done in a night.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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