Mitt Romney, who seems so poll-driven, who robotically spouts canned lines, seemed to let go a little in the CNN debate in Las Vegas. He jousted with Herman Cain over Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan. He parried attacks on his Massachusetts health-care plan. Mitt is already the best debater in the field, and tonight he finally trusted his instincts.
Here's what I saw when he dropped the mask a bit. Someone who is understandably contemptuous of the simplistic Cain tax plan. Someone who is justifiably frustrated that his central public accomplishment, Romneycare, is now an albatross. He was eloquent in defense of religious pluralism when asked about the prejudiced pastor who attacked his Mormon faith.
But Romney also displayed a whiny side. He repeatedly squabbled with Rick Perry, but instead of standing his ground or talking over Perry, he often turned to debate moderator Anderson Cooper. I've coached more debates than I can count, and you never whine to the moderator that someone broke the rules. Is Mitt going to do that when Putin blathers on? Will he whine to the U.N. secretary-general that Iranian madman Ahmadinejad went over the time limit?
Perhaps the real Romney is what we saw tonight: a man who is a gifted debater, a man who is strong in his faith, but who is also a bit of a whiner when someone punches him in the nose. I hope President Obama watches these debates. He's gonna have his hands full if Mitt is the nominee. But if Obama hits him hard enough, he'll draw blood.