Mitt’s passion play

    One of the raps on Mitt Romney is that he lacks passion. It’s as if the computer programmer who assembled him forgot to give him sweat glands. If you put him through a car wash, he’d probably come out dry.But he sure got himself wet last night. He exuded a fair bit of fervor in the latest of the many many many Republican debates, and that was probably good for his candidacy. Granted, he was duking it out with a bunch of dead-end buffoons, all the usual suspects, but he emerged stronger for having done so.At first it appeared that Romney would skate through unscathed, much like in their recent meetings. It was Herman Cain who took most of the hits during the first half hour, when his “9-9-9” tax overhaul plan was rightfully eviscerated. Las Vegas, site of the debate, is the perfect place to float a con, but Cain’s con was actually exposed before the debate even began. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, earlier in the day, had concluded in a study that 9-9-9 would ultimately raise taxes for 84 percent of Americans while slashing taxes for the rich. Cain tried to defend himself last night, insisting that his own website has it right about 9-9-9 while everyone else has it wrong – sort of like saying, “Who do you believe, me or your own eyes?” – and Romney was mostly content to watch Cain bury himself. Although at one point Romney did lend him a shovel, by forcing Cain to admit that his proposed national sales tax would be slapped on top of current state sales taxes. (Cain: “You’re going to pay the state sales tax, no matter what.” Romney: “And the people of Nevada don’t want to pay both taxes.”)But soon it was time for Romney’s passion play. It happened when Rick Perry, fueled by desperation and perhaps a few too many Red Bulls, aimed a cowboy kick at his rival’s package.This was bound to happen. Perry has been an embarrassment since he first opened his mouth back in August, and his Republican poll numbers have plummeted accordingly. Clearly his people figured this week that the only way up is to take Romney down. And so, last night, Perry dug into the opposition-research kit bag and came up with an old attack line that was last used against Romney circa 2007.”Mitt,” said Perry, proverbially clinging to Romney’s pants cuffs to avoid sinking beneath the waves, “you lose all of your standing from my perspective because you hired illegals in your home, and you knew for — about it for a year. And the idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you’re strong on immigration is, on its face, the height of hypocrisy.” Minutes later, Perry said it to Romney again: “There was a magnet of people that will hire illegals, and you are number one on that list, sir.” Good grief. Rudy Giuliani used similar lines against Romney four years ago, and you may recall how well it worked out. Rudy wound up winning one delegate in the ’08 cycle.Actually, Romney had never “hired illegals.” As he explained last night, “We hired a lawn company to mow our lawn, and they had illegal immigrants who were working there. And when that was pointed out to us (by the Boston Globe), we let them go.” The thing is, it took awhile for Romney to verbalize his explanation, because Perry wouldn’t shut up and let Romney talk. Romney was probably guilty, back in 2006, of having failed to grill the lawn company on the status of its employes, but, in the grand scheme of things, this lawn episode seems marginally interesting anyway. (When Perry dines out in Texas, how often does he grill the restaurant owner about the status of the busboys and dishwashers? How often do Perry’s corporate benefactors grill their lawn companies? How often does anyone?)More importantly, Perry came off like a Nixonian bully. And his behavior ticked off Romney, who, in one of several flesh-and-blood moments, lashed out, “Are you just going to keep talking, or are you going to let me finish with my – what I have to say?”Romney also went toe to toe with Newt Gingrich – memorably so, because he actually got Newt to concede a point. The thing is, Newt never concedes any point, never admits to being wrong on anything. If you were to remind Newt that in 1997 he became the first House speaker in history to be officially rebuked for ethics violations, Newt would probably insist it never happened.But Romney got him good last night. It happened during the predictable attack on Romney’s Massachusetts health reform law. Conservatives hate the fact that the law requires citizens to buy health insurance (the “individual mandate”), but, as Romney rightly pointed out, the mandate idea had long been in the mainstream of conservative  thinking.”Actually, Newt,” said Romney, “we got the idea of an individual mandate from you.””That’s not true,” said Gingrich. “You got it from the Heritage Foundation.””Yeah,” said Romney, “we got it from the Heritage Foundation and from you.””Wait a second,” said Gingrich. “What you just said is not true…What you’ve said to this audience just now plain wasn’t true. That’s not where you got it from.”But Romney remained dogged, with gentlemanly fervor: “Have you supported in the past an individual mandate?””I absolutely did,” said Gingrich. “With the Heritage Foundation, against ‘Hillarycare.'””You did support an individual mandate?””Yes, sir.””Oh, OK,” said Romney. “That’s what I’m saying. We got the idea from you and the Heritage Foundation.”Gingrich, grinning lamely: “OK.”Score that one for Romney. But his best moment came later, when the topic of his Mormon faith came up. As we all know by now, one of Perry’s evangelical Christian allies recently decreed that Romney was unfit for the presidency because he belonged to a “cult,” and suggested that only true Christians (such as Perry) should apply. Last night Perry did manage to distance himself a bit, by saying, “That individual expressed an opinion. I didn’t agree with it” – but it was Romney who spoke with fervent eloquence about the issue:”That idea that we should choose people, based upon their religion, for public office is what I find to be most troubling, because the founders of this country went to great length to make sure – and even put it in the Constitution – that we would not choose people who represent us in government based upon their religion; that this would be a nation that recognized and respected other faiths, where there’s a plurality of faiths, where there was tolerance for other people and faiths. That’s bedrock principle….The concept that we select people based on the church or the synagogue they go to, I think is a very dangerous and enormous departure from the principles of our Constitution.”The upshot? I’ll stick with what I wrote at the close of the debate, in the last of my 25 tweets:”Romney remains the titan among dwarfs. Perry’s mean streak diminishes him. Cain doesn’t know squat. The rest are chump change.”

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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