On paper, there's still a chance for Perry or another challenger to block Romney's path. There's still something about the man conservatives just don't like. For many, it's his record of moderation in Massachusetts, embodied in his passage of the healthcare law that was a model for Obama's federal effort. For some evangelical Christians, it's his active membership in the Mormon Church, which considers its 19th century scriptures as divine as the New Testament. For others, there's lingering mistrust of a man who was born wealthy, attended Harvard, worked as an investment banker and once took the family dog on a road trip in a crate on top of the car.
But Christie and other serious Republicans are rapidly concluding that Romney will be the nominee. And Romney himself is beginning to behave that way. At Tuesday's debate, serenely viewing the carnage to his right, he sounded more like a general election candidate, playing to the middle of the electorate, than an endangered moderate fending off challenges to his orthodoxy.
He told Cain that his 9-9-9 tax plan was misguided in terms that tea party adherents haven't heard much recently: "Simple answers are always very helpful, but oftentimes inadequate." He boasted that his healthcare law, with its individual mandate, had given Massachusetts the lowest percentage of uninsured children in the nation; "I care about people," he explained, sounding almost like a liberal. And he said that, like Obama, he'd reserve tax cuts for the middle class, not the affluent. "If I'm going to use precious dollars to reduce taxes" — note the non-tea-party "if" — "I want to focus on where the people are hurting the most, and that's the middle class. I'm not worried about rich people; they are doing just fine."
If Romney and the Not-Romneys keep to their current courses, that moderate-sounding conservative from Massachusetts could have the GOP nomination sewn up by Jan. 31. That would give him 10 full months to campaign against Obama, whose pitch for reelection will remain weighed down by 9 percent unemployment. Under those circumstances, and judging by his current performance, Romney would be a hard man to beat.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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