If it wasn't apparent before last night's Republican debate, it certainly is today. As Rick Perry made headlines with his "brain freeze" and Herman Cain fends off sexual harassment charges, Mitt Romney coolly emerges as the only real contender in the Republican primary.
Only a few short months ago, Romney had real competition. Perry seemed like a great anti-Romney candidate. Strong with the Tea Party, he was a strapping Texan who provided a sharp contrast to Romney's overly-slick citified image. Other Republicans had high hopes for Jon Huntsman, an intelligent conservative who spoke Mandarin, understood economic policy and could attract the independents to win a general election. Then there was the surprise swell of late-bloomer Herman Cain, an entrepreneurial businessman whose straight-talking won the hearts of people tired of Washington insiders.
But these contenders seem to be exiting the field, just as quickly as they came. It's nothing to do with Romney's newfound charisma or excellent campaign strategy. These candidates are doing fatal damage to themselves -- quickly becoming (in stature) like the seven dwarfs.
Dopey - Any doubts voters had about Rick Perry's inability to remain composed were solidified in last night's debate. A slip of the tongue is one thing. A giddy cuddling with a maple syrup jar at a New Hampshire fundraising dinner is another. But flat out forgetting a major piece of an economic plan you authored may be the last straw.
In his presentation of which agencies he would dismantle as president (education and commerce being two of them), Perry could not remember the third. He was cued... "Is it the EPA?" Ron Paul suggested. Perry looked over his notes, sinking his chin to his chest, but was dumfounded. Finally he looked at CNBC's John Harwood and said, "Oops."
While it goes without saying that quoting Britney Spears is never a good idea for a presidential candidate, the real trouble is that Perry revealed that his mind is not sharp enough to remember key elements of his own plan. The mistake was not the only of the night. Later, perhaps rattled by his former gaffe, Perry said "We have a culture in Washington, D.C., where these corporate lobbyists have these cozy relationships with the people that they're regulating." But corporate lobbyists don't regulate anyone. At least I hope not.
Grumpy - Say what you will about Herman Cain, but he sounds like a lot of us feel -- which is angry at the state of the economy and everything else. The empathetic irascibility Cain exudes is probably why he has gained so much traction with voters.
Aside from being annoyed at the status quo and the-mess-that-is-Washington, he seems most irritated by pesky reporters. His strategy -- and one that has turned out to be quite brilliant -- is simply to ask reporters the same question he's been asked and walk away. The befuddled reporter stands there too confused to chase after him. A personal favorite is when he barked back at the first reporter who asked him about the sexual harassment charges while he was at Godfather's Pizza. He got right in the guy's face and said: "Well, have you ever been accused of sexual harassment?" and kept moving. It's all very Archie Bunker, Mr. Cain, and it works.
In the last few weeks, Cain has run head-to-head with Romney. That said, anyone who is "serious" about the election says that his Häagen-Dazs Black Walnut will eventually melt under the glare of national attention. The continued harassment charges coupled with what looks to be some pretty serious campaign finance allegations will eventually wear on Mr. Cain's reputation. That, and there is evidence that voters get more discerning about qualifications as elections draw near.
Doc - Newt Gingrich has always been the "elder statesman" of this cadre of candidates. In the polls, he's now benefiting from the recent cracks in the Cain and Perry campaigns. Gingrich is now running third tied with Perry. The problem is that there's nothing fresh about Gingrich. He's running on the same ideas and policies he did back in 1994, and while he still fervently believes in them, his ideas and his tactics seem like something out of a different era.
Bashful - Jon Huntsman is seen as a strong statesman, respected moderate and true intellect. As the former governor and recent ambassador to China, Huntsman had the credentials and the buzz to be a frontrunner. Still, his campaign never caught fire. Some say his moderate stances were not enough to fire up Republican support, leaving the mild-mannered Huntsman lost in the single digits. He himself admits his website is getting less hits than a video his daughters made for him on YouTube.
Happy - Michele Bachmann. Does this woman ever stop smiling? Bachmann is happy; she's just happy to be there. Think about how quickly Bachmann rose to this stage. Just last year she was the liberal media's punching bag and today she's a Republican darling in the ranks of Sarah Palin. She'll never make it to the White House, but that doesn't seem to ruin her mood.
Sneezy - Ron Paul ranked strongly among Republican listeners last night, but nothing now is enough to put him within striking distance of the prize. Plus, he looks like something is agitating his nose; doesn't he? (Insert lame joke here.)
Sleepy - Rick Sant... wait, who? I'm already asleep.
As the seven non-Romney candidates continue to shrink in stature, the polls will soon begin to reflect Romney edge. For Romney, it's not about having a better strategy, more money, or brilliant policy ideas. It's about staying cool and being prepared. In this year's run, he is certainly the fairest of them all.
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