There may still be half a dozen contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, but the race has always had room for only two: Mitt Romney and someone who isn't Mitt Romney. After four full-scale debates, that second spot, reserved for a more conservative candidate, is still unfilled; the fiscal firebrands of the tea party haven't found an ideal alternative to Romney, leaving the party's right wing divided. It's beginning to look as if the former Massachusetts governor will win the nomination almost by default — an odd outcome to a year that began with the tea party triumphant.
For a brief moment after he entered the race, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, with his unvarnished calls for reducing the federal government to 19th century proportions, looked like the man to assume the tea party mantle. But Perry hasn't shown himself quite ready for prime time. His performance in debates has been bumbling ("not my strong suit," he admitted), and his problems have extended far beyond the stage.
Perry angered many social conservatives when he defended his decision to extend in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrants, a policy Romney attacked as a $100,000 discount for foreigners that Texas refused to Americans from other states. Even worse, Perry told everyone who disagreed with him on the issue — a solid majority of Republicans, at least outside Texas — that "I don't think you have a heart." He later apologized, but the damage to his tough-guy credentials was done.
And bizarrely, unlike every other major candidate, Perry hasn't offered a fleshed-out economic plan in a year when both the nomination and the general election hinge on economic issues. Romney has issued a 59-point plan, Michele Bachmann an 11-point plan, Herman Cain a "9-9-9" tax cut plan, but Perry has only promised an energy plan to be unveiled later this week. "I've been in this about eight weeks," he explained lamely on Tuesday.
All that, plus Perry's history as a traditional Texas deal-cutter, has left tea party conservatives worried that he isn't really the radical reformer they're looking for. Unexpectedly, Perry has run into his own version of Romney's problem: He claims he's a conservative, but as the real-life governor of a big and complicated state, he's made compromises that leave him looking less than pure.
That also explains the boomlet for Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza; he's never had to cut a deal with a legislature or think about getting re-elected. Cain's actually running first in polls in Iowa and South Carolina, but it's hard to believe that he will stay there once voters notice that his 9-9-9 plan would impose a 9 percent federal sales tax on groceries — and that's a first step toward a 30 percent sales tax.
The pratfalls of all those Not-Romneys — space precludes recounting the limitations of Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul — suggest that Romney can simply continue plodding, like a slow but steady tortoise, toward the nomination. And it won't hurt that he's a well-financed and well-endorsed tortoise.
The best thing that happened to Romney this week — more important than his solid performance in Tuesday's debate — was the endorsement of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a conservative hero who vouched for the front-runner as a genuine Republican and the candidate most likely to defeat President Obama. "This is not somebody who just decided to run for president off the back of an envelope," Christie said in a swipe at Perry.
On the electability question, Republican voters seem to agree: An ABC News/Washington Post poll last month found that a majority already consider Romney more likely to beat Obama than Perry. Over the next few months, they will need to decide whether they think electability is what matters.
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 email@example.com.