The first big televised debate of Republican contenders for the presidential nomination was subdued, friendly, and unserious. The format discouraged interaction, and the encounter was less a debate than a chat show with podiums. The spirit of comity is unlikely to last, but if it does, it will strengthen Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts. This will worry the White House: Mr Romney might be electable.
To win the presidency, the contender first has to persuade the party’s keenest supporters, who choose the nominee, and then the non-affiliated voters who will actually elect the president. The presidential and hitherto-moderate Mr Romney might persuade the wider electorate, but was expected to struggle in the GOP primaries. If his rivals keep treating him as tenderly as on Monday, that view will need to be revised.
One telling moment was when Tim Pawlenty, another former governor, and seen by Team Romney as a formidable competitor, was asked about his earlier criticism of “Obamneycare” – his derisive term for the Democrats’ healthcare reform, which the White House, intent on embarrassing Mr Romney, keeps reminding voters was modelled on the Massachusetts reform. Mr Pawlenty not only declined to attack, he reversed himself, saying he was merely quoting the White House. He flinched, and a nation cringed.
Mr Romney insists that the Democrats’ health plan is significantly different from his, which is false. But by pledging to press for repeal and to grant every state a waiver from the law’s requirements, he may inoculate himself against attack on the subject from within the GOP – especially if his rivals continue to lack the killer instinct.
The Republican party on display this week was strikingly conservative. Mr Romney has moved to the right – though cautiously, to avoid renewed accusations of flip-flopping. Conforming to the shared spirit of “Any of us would be better than President Obama”, his views did not differ much from those of Michele Bachmann, darling of the Tea Party and supposed scourge of Republicans In Name Only, and who also did well.
Mr Romney’s posture could pose a challenge for him later. But the larger test for him and his party is to frame good policies. The debate showed little sign of this. The GOP is counting on a weak economy to buoy support and make voters overlook their vague or questionable ideas on taxes and public spending. Conceivably, this could work. It does not deserve to.