Mitt Romney and Rick Perry spar during the GOP presidential debate in Tampa. (Mike Carlson / Associated…)
It’s easy to poke fun at Mitt Romney. He comes off as a little too stiff, a little too straight, his suit always crisp, his hair in place. He’d never name-check a Kurt Cobain, as Jon Huntsman did in the GOP debate Monday. He rarely gets worked up, even when his rivals for the GOP nomination try to bait him.
But slowly, surely, it’s possible that low-key style could be his greatest advantage.
Romney, of course, has been around the track before. And he’s showing it, rarely falling off script or message, and this time around trying to keep to a more even keel on policy, as his consistent defense of his Massachusetts healthcare plan has shown.
He sat back and watched Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty tear each other to pieces in Iowa, and then scooped up Pawlenty for his campaign after the dust settled. He saw conservatives try to recruit a big-time player such as Chris Christie or Jeb Bush to take him on. He witnessed the Donald Trump boomlet. And when Rick Perry showed up and overnight looked like the man to beat, Romney methodically began to try and take him down using a well-worn line of attack over Social Security.
A day after front-runner Perry’s surprisingly shaky performance in Tampa, methodical suddenly isn't looking half-bad.
The CNN/Tea Party debate exposed some of Perry’s persistent vulnerabilities: his pre-Roosevelt views on Social Security, his arguably moderate approach to immigration, his ties to special interests in Texas.
And while Romney was not playing to an especially friendly crowd in Tampa, he seemed to score points when he challenged Perry on Social Security and made light of his jobs record in Texas.
When Perry tried to suggest his past views on the program’s constitutionality were simply fodder for having a future conversation about its viability, Romney interjected: “We're having that right now, Governor. ... We're running for president.”
And when Romney was asked about Perry’s job-creation efforts, Perry jokingly reached out and placed his hand on Romney’s arm as if to say “We’re all friends here.” But Romney was not diverted.
“I think Governor Perry would agree with me that if you're dealt four aces, that doesn't make you necessarily a great poker player,” Romney said.
Even the tea-party audience seemed a little stunned at Romney’s slap.
Romney managed to attack Perry from the right on whether the children of illegal immigrants merited in-state tuition at Texas colleges, a policy Perry defended.
“With regards to illegal immigration, of course we'd build a fence, and of course we do not give in-state tuition credits to people who've come here illegally,” Romney said. “That only attracts people to continue to come here to take advantage of America's great beneficence.”
And while Bachmann garnered attention for her bitter debate with Perry over HPV vaccinations in Texas, her attacks also played to Romney’s advantage. If the Minnesota congresswoman can regain some momentum and weaken Perry in states such as Iowa and South Carolina, it could clear Romney’s path to the nomination considerably.
All in all, Romney didn’t have a bad day. Just like in New Hampshire in June, and Iowa in August, and last week in California. No major gaffes. No embarrassing headlines. No drama.
There is, obviously, a long, long way to go. And it remains to be seen if Perry really did hurt himself in the eyes of more than Washington's political class. Regardless, he will remain a well-funded and formidable opponent, and one embraced by many conservatives who view Romney with suspicion.
But like a solidly built house with a strong foundation and a well-shingled roof, Romney has so far weathered every storm that has blown his way. It's not very exciting, but then consistency never is.
Unfortunately for him, the forecast isn’t letting up. Another debate next week in Orlando awaits.