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How Mitt Romney Outlived His Greatest Weakness

With enough political reporters in Iowa to cover both the Lindbergh kidnapping and the O.J. Simpson trial, Thursday night’s GOP debate had to be a defining moment, a game-changer so epic that it will shimmer in memory like Ronald Reagan. Yeah, sure. 

Even though Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann provided the expected fireworks, while Jon Huntsman made his muted entrance from stage center, the two-hour Fox News face-off mostly served as a reminder that we have only just begun. This was not a debate that triggered mass conversions to a single candidate. In fact, it strains credulity to believe that many additional Iowa Republicans will spontaneously change their weekend plans to rush to Ames for Saturday’s over-hyped straw poll. With Rick Perry and maybe the id-propelled Sarah Palin waiting in the wings, the underlying message from Thursday night may well have been that eight isn’t enough.

But Mitt Romney, now routinely described as the front-runner, could take satisfaction because he survived another debate without a GOP challenger laying a glove on him. Little that Romney said was memorable, and his opening line about the president’s debt-ceiling deal bordered on the weird: “I’m not going to eat Barack Obama’s dog food, all right.” But Romney, with his graying temples and his deep voice, excels at looking and sounding presidential. And if you believe that such superficialities do not matter, check in with Dukakis. 

Romney’s public record may be the mother of all re-inventions, but the standard attack lines are growing stale, partly because they were all used during the 2008 campaign. Is there a new put-down that any Republican can come up with about Romney’s passage of a health-care mandate in Massachusetts? (Pawlenty, by the way, finally used his Obamney-care line, a debate too late). Asked about the closing of companies like American Pad and Paper (385 jobs lost) when he headed Bain Capital, Romney replied with an oft-rehearsed line, “When I was at Bain Capital, we invested in about 100 different companies. Not all of them worked. I know there are some people in Washington [who] don’t understand how the free economy works.”

Michele Bachmann, for her part, illustrated the perils of being a shooting-star candidate—sometimes you give off just a few sparks rather than a full pyrotechnic display. Even as Pawlenty—who has been exasperated with her since he was governor and Bachmann was an ideologically inflexible state senator—launched the predictable attack lines, the congresswoman seemed over-matched in responding. One moment she is likening Pawlenty to Obama (not an easy comparison to accept), the next moment she is crowing about her courageous advocacy work in championing the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act. (The careening stock market was not mentioned Thursday night, but the light bulb crusade received full illumination).

Watching Bachmann, there was a sense that, in just the second GOP debate, she was already resorting to her greatest-hits repertoire. Of course, Bachmann remains a formidable contender in Iowa, but there were small hints that she may have already taken her candidacy as far as it can go.

What is hard to decipher is how one of the most dramatic moments in the debate played with Iowa Republicans. Conservative journalist Byron York, one of the moderators, asked Bachmann point blank, “As president, would you be submissive to your husband?” By now, I am sure the blogs are full of vigorous feminist argument about whether this question was sexist or just Bachmann-esque. In fairness, York cited Bachmann’s use of the Biblical passage, “Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands,” as the justification for a question that would never, ever be asked of Hillary Clinton.

Bachmann, glowering through a smile that could combat global warming, responded with one of her trademark inversions of the English language: “What submission means to us, if that’s what your question is, it means respect.” At that moment, I almost expected Bachmann to summon Aretha Franklin as a character witness to her marriage.

Pawlenty had a strong enough debate performance to reassure his skittish fund-raisers. Even though the Iowa Straw Poll on Saturday is not a valid predictor of the actual Iowa caucuses, he has staked the future of his candidacy on a strong showing in Ames. If Bachmann beats him in Ames (or even if, God forbid, he finishes beyond Ron Paul), he will have to convince his money men that he remains a solid investment. While Thursday night did not, by itself, eliminate the Pawlenty-in-plenty-of-trouble story line, it did give him a new argument to use with his deep-pocketed supporters. 

Huntsman, for all the ballyhoo that surrounded his entry into the race, came onto the debate on little cat feet. He mixed moments of standard-issue Republican pandering (no new taxes ever) with moments of against-the-grain courage (sticking to his support of civil unions while his rivals were burbling over a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage). While such conviction politics will appeal to Republican liberals (both of them), there were times when Huntsman seemed as out-of-step with the Republican base as Ron Paul did with his shouted denunciations of American military policy.

Newt Gingrich is always interesting—whether it was offering an enraptured paean to bring Six Sigma methodologies to the federal government or attacking Chris Wallace for his gotcha questions. Rick Santorum and Herman Cain also debated—and are purportedly running for president. 

Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD.