In the Arena

23 Days Till Iowa: Betcha Million Dollars!

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It is difficult, given his demeanor, to imagine Mitt Romney as a creature of the playground, but he must have been once. And last night, to his misfortune, an elementary school recess version of Romney suddenly burst forth. “$10,000!” He said, extending his hand to Rick Perry, demanding a bet on the subject of the Romney health care plan. And while that moment is being portrayed as a rich man’s gaffe, I think it was more a regression to childhood bravado: Betcha million dollars you won’t throw a spitball at Newtie!

That Romney, who seemed imperturbable and perfect up until a few weeks ago, has devolved to playground tactics is one of the more amazing stories of this campaign. 

Everything seems to be going wrong for Romney, even when things go right. In the key substantive moment of the debate last night, Romney was absolutely right to criticize Gingrich for his wildly foolish, and inaccurate, remark about the Palestinians being an “invented” people. And he was even smarter to turn this remark into a question of Gingrich’s character–that a President had to act with “sobriety, care, stability,” he said, then added that, unlike Gingrich, he wasn’t a “bomb-thrower.”

Well Done! Or so I was thinking…and then Gingrich came right back with Ronald Reagan calling the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire” and telling Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” against the advice of his foreign policy experts. Oh, right–this is a Republican primary and creative intemperance is a plus. In that context, this was a clean kill. Gingrich was not only positing himself as Reagan, he had set up Romney as the prudent, unexciting and un-reelected George H.W. Bush.

Also damaging was Romney’s inability to make a coherent case against Gingrich when he was asked to do so by George Stephanopoulos early in the debate. Romney almost seemed surprised by the question–he went first to Newt’s one-time call for Moon colonies, then raised the entirely peripheral and defendable Gingrich suggestion to have poor kids help clean their schools and Gingrich’s call for the elimination of the capital gains tax. These were weirdly, ad hoc and ill-chosen examples as Gingrich soon demonstrated. Why didn’t he raise Gingrich’s attack on Paul Ryan’s medicare plan as “right-wing social engineering” or a dozen other Newtisms that might be difficult to defend in a Republican debate. This seemed so unlike the well-prepared, confident Romney of previous debates that it raised the question: Is Mitt panicking?

Clearly, he is in trouble. I date that trouble to his late-November decision to jump into Iowa. It seemed a smart move at the time: Herman Cain was the front-runner, but that wasn’t going to last. Newt’s surge was just beginning; there was no way to tell how intense it would become. It seemed plausible that Romney might sneak a victory with his chronic 25% support level. Now it seems possible he might be clobbered there, finishing well behind Gingrich and Ron Paul, perhaps even slipping down to Rick Perry level (a level Romney attained, momentarily, by challenging Perry to that bet).

The trouble is compounded, as I’ve argued before, by Romney’s foolish media strategy. He now has an awful lot riding on next Sumday’s Fox News interview with Chris Wallace. Indeed, he now has an awful lot riding on how he performs this week, especially in the Thursday night debate in Sioux City. (That Romney  has decided to spend much of the week in New Hampshire is a sign that he might be feeling vulnerable in his firewall state).

Aas for the others last night:

Gingrich–didn’t do as well as everyone says he did. As the front-runner, he got a lot more time than in past debates, and he often used it to good effect–as on the question about his moral lapses–but I suspect that he has called himself an “historian” twice too often now. Gingrich’s clipped condescension, his tenor whine, his nastiness all become more apparent with more exposure. And Ron Paul did a fairly effective job of hitting Gingrich for being the K-Street player that he is.

Paul–less the currency-crank, more the elder statesman…and with some humor, almost, too.

Perry–Better, but you still expect him to go into brain-freeze on almost every question. He’s walking a tightrope over Hades, with no net.

Bachmann–Her “Newt Romney” refrain was effective, but her sell-by date has passed.

Santorum–He did fine..I’m still waiting for the Santorum bumplet.