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Robert Bennett: The Mitt Romney, Rick Perry show

Published: Monday, Sept. 12 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, businessman Herman Cain and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman stand at the podium to answer questions during a debate at the Reagan Library Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, in Simi Valley, Calif.

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

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Early political predictions in a presidential race are often foolish and always risky, but last Wednesday's debate involving all announced Republican candidates appears to have shaken out the field. While there were eight candidates on the stage, it quickly became the Mitt and Rick show. Most observers believe that the race for the nomination has hardened into a fight between those two.

Gov. Rick Perry opened with a shot at Gov. Mitt Romney's record on job creation, saying that Michael Dukakis had done better. Romney had a ready response, pointing out that Perry's own record wasn't as good as his predecessors, either. That got a good laugh, Advantage Romney.

Perry then attacked Romney's record on health care in Massachusetts, but this time it was the moderator who fired back with an attack on the high number of Texans who had no coverage, turning the exchange into a draw.

Perry called Social Security "a monstrous lie," appealing to the strong conservatives who will vote in the primaries. Romney said it must be saved, not scrapped, appealing to the independents who will vote in the general election. Each got what he wanted.

Romney refused to describe himself as a tea party member even though he endorsed the party's goals of smaller and less obtrusive government; Perry left no doubt that he was a solid tea party man. The stage was set for future clashes between the two.

The others became bystanders, trying to break through. Ron Paul hit Perry for not being sufficiently conservative, pointing out that he had endorsed Al Gore at one point in his career. Jon Huntsman chided Romney for not doing as good a job on either health care or job creation as he had done in Utah. Newt Gingrich slammed the media for trying to divide Republicans, Rick Santorum touted his experience in the Senate, Herman Cain offered a unique solution to our tax problems and Michelle Bachman talked about what she had learned in Congress, but the focus stayed on Perry and Romney.

Which one will win the nomination? Hard to say at this point. Perry is ahead in the polls but he is still largely unknown and thus vulnerable among people who are making assumptions about his positions that may turn out not to be true. Romney has his doubters, but his support is probably firmer because there is little that can be said about him that has not already been said, multiple times. Also, Romney leads in several of the early primary states, where victories with actual voters could move the national trend back in his favor.

In the past, when the preliminaries are over and decision time nears, the question of which candidate is most likely to win has been decisive. If that is the case this time, it bodes well for Romney, who emerged from the debate with the strongest poll numbers against the president. However, some Republican primary voters could decide that President Obama is so weak that any candidate could beat him, leaving them free to vote their ideological rather than their tactical preference.

History shows that that could be a serious mistake on their part. Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan are among the many politicians who benefited greatly because they were underestimated by their opponents. For all his troubles, Obama still has significant political skills; he didn't get into the Oval office by accident. His speech to the Congress two nights after the debate showed oratorical fire we haven't seen in him for a long time. If they are to beat him, Republicans will need their strongest man on the field.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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