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Romney on Cruise Control

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Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney ran the table in the latest Republican debate held at Dartmouth University. Businessman Herman Cain, brandishing his "9-9-9" economic plan, showed some extra pop, perhaps fueled by his strong performance in recent polls.

The debate, sponsored by Bloomberg and the Washington Post, was moderated by Charlie Rose of PBS and conducted around a large oval table. The setting allowed for a more conversational and less tense atmosphere.

Of course, Texas Governor Rick Perry has performed poorly in all of his debates. As a result, he has plummeted in the polls. So, even with expectations at an all-time low, Governor Perry barely cleared the bar. It was surprising that, with everything riding on his performance, Governor Perry appeared small and unimpressive in this debate. It seemed that whatever the question Governor Perry's answer would circle back to "reduce energy regulations" and "I know how to create jobs -- I did it in Texas." The fact is that even the conservative Wall Street Journal has been casting a disbelieving eye on his jobs claims. And Governor Perry has still not released a detailed economic plan.

What is most annoying about these debates is that candidates are sometimes not truthful with their answers, yet their responses are seldom challenged. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman said that President Obama's health care reform legislation would result in the IRS hiring more than 19,000 staff. This silly claim has been found totally untrue time and again for two years. Governor Perry inferred that 2.9 million jobs have been lost under President Obama. In fact, the president has been adding jobs since his second month in office. Former Governor Romney says that President Obama's first stimulus failed. Yet the non-partisan CBO says the stimulus package added or saved between 1.9 million and 3 million jobs. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich said that Obamacare did include death panels. Nonsense!

Of course, Republican voters believe just about anything that is critical of the president. A huge percentage of Republicans believe he is a Muslim. Ditto for those who believe he was not born in the United States. Ditto for those who believe the president is a socialist who engages in class warfare.

Political candidates are coached on what to say. Their responses have keywords and are often reduced to easy to remember bullet points. So the answers that many of the candidates give are well developed, extensively focus-grouped and are repeated over and over. But time and again, in all of the debates, inaccurate candidate responses go unchallenged. Instead, journalists should research the candidate's previous answers to important questions and anticipate what they will say. They can then be prepared to push back when the responses are untrue.

Nonetheless, today was a great day for the Romney campaign. First, he got the enthusiastic and impressive endorsement of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie just ruled out a presidential bid for himself although he is extremely popular among party loyalists, especially among moderate Republicans. Governor Romney then hit it out of the park with his debate performance.

A particularly interesting moment came when Governor Perry got to ask former Governor Romney about his universal health care reform measure, which is now the law and working well in Massachusetts. Governor Romney ably defended it as right for his state, but turned the spotlight right back on Governor Perry. ""One per-cent of Massachusetts' children are uninsured while 25%, or one million Texas children, are uninsured." Governor Perry's lack of debating prowess is truly amazing.

Of course, with each passing day, more and more Republicans are getting comfortable with the likelihood that Romney will head their ticket in 2012. The question will be can he win the crucial independent vote and beat President Barack Obama?

The good news for the ambitious Texas governor is that Governor Romney's success will give Governor Perry at least four years to practice his debating techniques and learn something about the world.

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