Michael Tomasky: After Saturday Night’s Debate, Is It the End of Mitt?

Through all the ups and downs of the past few months, Mitt Romney has remained the default frontrunner—until now. Michael Tomasky on the beginning of the end. Plus, Howard Kurtz on why Mitt shouldn't be counted out.

12.12.11 9:45 AM ET

For months, the default position has been: “Oh, in the end, it’ll be Romney.” Donald Trump surged. Then Michele Bachmann. Then Rick Perry, who seemed serious, at least until people actually got a good look at him. Then Herman Cain. They all had their moment, but through every one of those episodes, most observers said that the flavor of the month really didn’t have what it took, and at the end of the day the GOP would turn inevitably to Mitt Romney. Some people are still saying that, but there are fewer of them, and this week is the first one of the whole campaign in which Romney feels like the guy who is definitely in second place, and maybe for good.

There could have been contexts in which Romney’s $10,000 bet remark from Saturday night’s debate wouldn’t have been such a big deal. We’ve all said, “I’ll bet you a thousand bucks that...” when we don’t really have a thousand bucks. If Romney were cruising in the polls and had managed to connect to Republican voters in some vital way, the comment would have passed. But he’s not cruising or connecting by a long shot, so the remark dominated Sunday’s post-debate coverage and is due for at least one more day of traction on cable.

It’s pretty clear by now that Republican voters just don’t want him. Oh, they might yet end up with him. Newt Gingrich is pretty much the last plausible Not Mitt out there—Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum evidently aren’t going to get their 15 minutes, and Ron Paul has his following but also his obvious limitations. And Gingrich could blow it in any number of ways. So it might yet be Romney, but it’s awfully clear at this point that the GOP base voters are desperate for it not to be.

It’s his healthcare plan. It’s his religion. It’s his style. And most of all, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, he just fails utterly to embody the rage conservative voters feel about Barack Obama and his vision of America. That is obviously demand number one that GOP voters are making of the candidates—the most important quality they’re looking for. Romney doesn’t do culture-war rage. Completely lacks the instinct for it.

Something he is pretty good at is attacking. Look at what he did to Perry, with that immigration attack he made against the Texas governor at that long-ago debate. He leveled Perry; found the perfect issue, phrased it well (that business about the $100,000 discount on tuition for children of undocumented parents), and drove it home. So maybe he can do that to Gingrich. But on what issue?

The best charge against Gingrich is that he’s a flip-flopper, but Romney obviously can’t go there. He might go the adulterer route. Surely the increased role for Romney’s wife in the campaign is meant to imply that. But for Christian conservative voters it seems like you can have a past that includes practically anything. As long as you say you’ve now squared it with the Big Fella, they’ll give you a pass.

The best thing Romney has going for him is that Newt’s a bomb-thrower. This is the line some of Romney’s surrogates are putting out there—New Hampshire’s John Sununu, for example, calling Gingrich “self-aggrandizing” and “irrational.” Romney himself did this in the debate in the exchange about Gingrich’s comment about the Palestinians being an “invented” people, saying that in contrast to Gingrich he’d speak with “care and caution and stability and sobriety” (four adjectives!). But what if care and caution and stability and sobriety aren’t of much interest to GOP primary voters? The bomb-thrower charge may have limitations this electoral season.

I feel sorry for Romney every once in a great, great while. He’s like an Impressionist painter who strolled into the salons of Paris in 1905 thinking he was going to blow everyone away only to find that tastes have moved on and no one wants to buy his stuff. The Republican electorate is tired of boring and prudent respectability. The Republican establishment, presumably, is decidedly not tired of those things, especially since respectability often equates to electability. The establishment might yet save Romney. But how? What levers does it have?

It’s a sign of Romney’s desperation that he’s now using Ann Coulter’s voice in a radio ad, saying that she thinks he’s “the strongest candidate.” The sound bite is effective, I guess, if you’re affected by Ann Coulter. But it is also three weeks old. A lot has changed in those three weeks—most saliently, that Republican voters now clearly disagree with Coulter. Romney’s no longer the default choice, and he has no obvious line of attack against the man who is. I’m not sure I’d bet a dollar on Romney now, let alone ten thousand of them.