On Thurday night, Mitt Romney made it through another debate with only a few scratches on his armor. Don’t underestimate how strange and surprising this is, especially when you recall how much hazing Romney endured four years ago.
The common explanations for Romney’s recent success are true: He’s a smarter and stronger candidate than he was in ’08. He has chosen his media appearances wisely. He speaks more naturally and authoritatively, and less like a political consultant’s Charlie McCarthy doll. He’s quick on his feet.
But Romney has also been very, very fortunate. For reasons mostly of chance, he’s managed to escape–so far–the the whipping-boy role that doomed his first White House campaign.
How did this happen? For the better part of two years, Romney floated above the political fray, the GOP frontrunner-in-waiting, as the Republican field was slow to form and even slower to engage in intramural fighting. In the early Republican debates, Romney’s rivals focused on Obama-bashing and went easy on one another. (Exhibit A: Tim Pawlenty’s ObamneyCare chicken-out.) As fall approached, the time seemed night for an all-out assault on the frontrunner. But then Rick Perry came along, parachuting into the race to become its instant front-runner, and begging to be taken down a peg.
Perry’s rivals promptly obliged him. Romney had obvious motives to go after Perry early and hard. But Perry also drew quick attacks from several the lesser candidates. Michele Bachmann, whose candidacy Perry effectively blew out of the water, has repaid him with her incessant attacks on the HPV vaccination issue (albeit to self-destructive ends). Familiarity with his state’s governor seems to have bred contempt in Ron Paul, who has whacked Perry in debates and on TV. Even Rick Santorum is going after Perry, presumably to steal away some socially-conservative voters.
Romney, meanwhile, has hardly seen a ruffle in his his well-combed hair. Sure, his GOP rivals zap him from time to time, mostly over health care, though never terribly effectively. But they have barely aimed at the fat target of Romney’s numerous flip-flops on social issues, from abortion to gay rights to gun control. And when they have, well, more luck! Consider the way Rick Perry bungled the delivery of last night’s “flip-flopper” attack on Romney, rendering it incomprehensible and totally ineffective. At the same time another candidate with a motive to tear Romney up–Jon Huntsman, who is desperate to win New Hampshire–seems averse to harsh negative attacks.
In the 2008 debates, Romney tended to get abused like a hapless freshman targeted by the school bullies. Check out this bit of analysis on ABC News after a January 5, 2008 debate in New Hampshire:
[GEORGE] STEPHANOPOULOS: I think the predicate was set early on that Mitt Romney was going to be the center of this debate and on the defensive. And here’s one of the moments that mattered very early on. Mitt Romney was talking about his position on the war, and Mike Huckabee interjected.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROMNEY: Don’t try and characterize my position. Of course, this war has…
HUCKABEE: Which one?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STEPHANOPOULOS: Clean shot. A very clean shot by Mike Huckabee. And Diane, I counted up. These guys on the stage do not like Mitt Romney. He was attacked by Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, John McCain, Mike Huckabee. He was the center of the debate even though he’s not the leader anymore.
Back then, Romney’s rivals seemed to resent him personally in a way that’s less evident now. It’s also been a while since Romney blatantly flipped on a core position. But particularly if the now-forming conventional wisdom holds up that Perry isn’t ready for prime-time, Romney will at last become his rivals’ prime target. And the material is certainly there for anyone willing–and competent enough–to use it: