A few weeks ago I made sport of the New York Times for anointing Mitt Romney as the front-runner of the GOP presidential sweepstakes. The Grey Lady’s opinion is as worthless as anyone else’s might be in a race that is still many months away from the first vote’s being cast. The same applies to the Washington Post, whose Chris Cilliza issued his post-first-debate rankings with Romney in the lead for the nomination.
Cilliza gives Romney credit for running a better campaign than he did in 2008. While this might be true, given that his last run was something of a disaster, it is to damn him with faint praise. Romney is smart to concentrate on the economy rather than jabbering about how he was set up for victory as he did four years ago. But the look on the faces of the candidates who participated in last night’s debate in South Carolina when Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan was mentioned—they all but openly salivated—verifies that he is operating with an impossible handicap in a year when most Republicans are most angry about Obamacare.
All the no-shows last night looked good by not associating themselves with such a sad spectacle. But Romney had another reason for staying away. His non-appearance spared him a skewering on Obamacare that he can’t talk his way out of. That it didn’t happen last night merely postpones the inevitable. Romney may come across better than even the most plausible of the South Carolina debaters, but this is not the same thing as Pawlenty’s backtracking on cap and trade. The Minnesotan did the right thing last night and simply fessed up to making a mistake on an issue that is not as important as health care to most voters. Romney’s doubletalking explanations of his state-run health-care plan just makes things worse. The former Massachusetts governor is more phantom than front-runner.