LAS VEGAS — After a concentrated burst of campaigning, the GOP presidential race has been distilled to a simple question: Can Republicans learn to live with Mitt Romney even if they don’t love Mitt Romney?
The former Massachusetts governor is certainly not a lock to face President Barack Obama in November 2012.
He displayed an unflatteringly brittle and peevish side during the Tuesday night debate here in Las Vegas, turning snappish when challenged on health care and illegal immigration, two old issues that drew fresh blood as his rivals assumed a more aggressive stance.
Yet the rapidly accelerating contest remains about where it was a month and a half ago, when the steeplechase of six debates in six weeks began: with Romney the front-runner by default, leading not because of his overwhelming appeal but because a plurality of Republicans don’t seem to like anyone else a whole lot better.
His main opponent and chief debate tormentor, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, may have helped his ailing campaign by turning in a performance Tuesday that was good enough to maintain his viability until his TV advertising can kick in. Still, his performance was not great and failed to erase concerns about his command of issues and his deftness in parrying criticism.
Businessman Herman Cain, who surged to the top of some polls on the strength of his earlier showings, became the latest GOP phenom scorched by a suddenly bright debate spotlight. He was forced back on his heels defending his “9-9-9” tax plan and flailed on a no-brainer question on his willingness to bargain with terrorists. (Cain finally ruled it out.)
In the absence of other defining moments, the debates this year have driven the GOP race to an unusual degree and clarified not just the candidates’ positions – which are actually at little variance – but also their personalities and temperaments, which can be just as important to voters.
The biggest loser in that regard has been Perry, who entered the race in a starburst that sent him soaring to the top of polls, only to fall back after a series of stammering and admittedly weak debate nights.
Other candidates have been uneven (Cain and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann can stir an audience with one answer and confound them with the next) or largely irrelevant (the perennially grouchy former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the marginal former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who decided not to show Tuesday night). Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum would fall into a special category, coming off as strong, passionate and well-informed in each of the debates, yet having little to show for it. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has a small but devoted following, appears similarly situated.
Romney, more than any other candidate, has boosted his chances at the nomination with his reliably steady and, up until Tuesday, placid performances on the debate stage.
A striking fact of the Republican race has been the former governor’s unbudging stand in opinion surveys, which – through thick or thin – place him as the favorite of one-quarter to one-third of GOP voters. Other candidates rise or fall; Romney’s support never wavers.
“Romney has basically set the standard for someone who looks poised, presidential and conservative enough without being frothing,” said campaign analyst Stuart Rothenberg. Having run before, in 2008, Romney has shown the benefit of experience, especially in the high-pressure setting of a nationally televised debate.
The problem, Rothenberg said, is that Romney has mainly convinced those already disposed to support his candidacy, who maybe needed just a bit of reassurance. “That’s not,” Rothenberg said, “where the whole party is.”
Political veterans differ on the impact of a contentious nominating fight. Some hold that a tough and vigorous campaign can strengthen a candidate, much as Obama improved during his months-long 2008 duel with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Others fret that a fratricidal battle will drain resources that could be used against the opposition, leaving a broke and battered GOP nominee to face a president who is both unchallenged within his party and enormously flush with campaign cash.
As the campaign hurtles forward, it will determine whether simply being good enough will be good enough for Romney.