Republican Debate: Does Gingrich Have Romney Spooked?

Gingrich's rise in the polls has Romney spooked, and it showed at tonight's debate.

Matthew Putney / ABC

What the hell was Mitt thinking?

The big take away from last night’s debate will undoubtedly be the governor’s $10k-bet moment—the most painful misstep since Rick Perry couldn’t call to mind three cabinet agencies. Bet your butt that, as Romney thrust his uncalloused hand at Perry, David Axelrod and Jim Messina damn near wet themselves with delight.

But the $10k flub was simply the most vivid symptom of Romney’s quasi-meltdown. Up to now the governor had looked consistently solid in these forums: calm, cool, reasonable, informed, somewhat robotic, but on the whole believably presidential.

Tonight, by contrast, it was as though he had prepped for the showdown by doing several lines of coke backstage. He was talking too fast. Blinking too fiercely. Fidgeting too much. Babbling. Cackling. On the whole looking, as Newt Gingrich might put it, fundamentally twitchy.

Clearly, Gingrich’s rise has Romney spooked. And why not? For the first time, the governor is being challenged by someone who comes across as a seasoned, sensible grown up—who cannot be automatically dismissed as a fringe nutter or a political know-nothing.

The specific attributes and shortcomings of the two men aside, this is not a good development for Romney. Being forced to engage with an opponent dents his oh-so-carefully cultivated aura of inevitability. And, not to be harsh, but without that, what does Romney have? It’s not as though anyone in his party seems to really like him.

If we’ve learned anything from this race so far, it’s that one debate does not a primary decide. Just ask Herman Cain. That said, Rick Perry can attest to the damage caused by multiple shaky performances.

Mitt needs to pull himself together. Pronto. Many more appearances like this and he will go down in history as the guy who tanked his own presidential candidacy with a bad bet.