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Campaign 2012: The GOP debates enter the home stretch

January 16, 2012 |  5:24 pm

Mitt Romney shows off his jeans in South Carolina
Republican presidential candidates have at least eight more debates scheduled, but Monday night's talkfest in Myrtle Beach, S.C., may be one of the last two that matter. That's because they are the final debates before the South Carolina GOP primary on Jan. 21. If none of Mitt Romney's opponents can attract enough votes from the party's right flank to emerge as a clear alternative, the rest of the race could amount to a Romney victory lap.

Romney hasn't won a majority of the votes in any GOP contest, but he is rapidly shoring up support and solidifying his grip on the nomination. The latest Gallup tracking poll put him at 37%, his highest so far and tied (with Newt Gingrich, who has since plummeted) for the best showing by any Republican in this flavor-of-the-month race.

Yet support for Romney seems halfhearted, even as his candidacy acquires a sense of inevitability. Why haven't his opponents been able to lay a rhetorical glove on him? Maybe it's because voters are inured to the main complaints about him -- he's changed positions more often than a windmill, he supported a healthcare reform law in Massachusetts similar to "Obamacare," he's a Republican in name only -- because they're been hearing them for so long. Or maybe he's simply a better candidate than the rest of the field, seemingly better equipped to completely Job No. 1: to wit, defeating President Obama in November.

Watching the previous GOP debates, it's easy to conclude that Romney is more poised and Oval Office-ready than the others on stage. He never seems caught flat-footed, unlike Texas Gov. Rick Perry. His answers typically have a realism that's often absent from Rep. Ron Paul's purist approach to small government. And although he's not as dramatic as former House Speaker Newt "Historic Moment" Gingrich, neither does he seem as entranced by his own insights.

Nevertheless, the dwindling number of candidates will give those left on stage more time at the microphone. That's good both for Gingrich, who can use the extra time to show off more of his command of the intricacies of government and governing, and for Rick Santorum, an articulate speaker who was too far down in the polls to get much attention in the early debates. It's probably not so good for Perry, who seems as twitchy on stage as a (insert the colorful homespun analogy of your choice here involving a hyperbolically uncomfortable farm animal).

Theoretically, South Carolina is fertile ground for the anti-Romneys, with religious and social conservatives and tea partyers making up such a large portion of the GOP there. So as tempting as it might be for Perry, Paul, Santorum and Gingrich to concentrate their verbal fusillades on Romney, the more important challenge is to persuade the majority of GOP voters who aren't in Romney's camp not to vote for one of the other alternatives.

That's why the most interesting thing to watch will be how Perry, Paul, Santorum and Gingrich talk about one another. How will they convince voters that they're not only better Republicans than the front-runner but more likely than the other also-rans to beat Obama? How will they differentiate themselves from the others currently in slots 2 through 5?

Another thing to watch is how Santorum responds if Gingrich and Perrycontinue pounding Romney for his work in private equity at Bain Capital. Those attacks have split populists in the party from free-market business-oriented conservatives. Will Santorum continue to stand up for private equity and, by extension, Wall Street? That may play well in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, but it doesn't seem to mesh with the everyman grandson-of-a-coal-miner biography Santorum has emphasized on the campaign trail.

Finally, my colleague Doyle McManus wonders whether any of the candidates will be asked to defend the Confederate flag flying on the South Carolina statehouse grounds. It's a "gotcha" question but an appropriate one on Martin Luther King Jr. Day -- even if South Carolina was the last to make the day an official state holiday.


No more promises from Huntsman

McManus: Red meat for the tea party

Perry: What's wrong with a little corpse-defiling?

Rick Santorum's 'verbal ooze' inspires new adjective

-- Jon Healey

Photo: Mitt Romney shows off his jeans Monday at a rally for the Faith and Freedom Coalition, inviting Texas Gov. Rick Perry to raise the belt-buckle ante. Credit: David Goldman / Associated Press

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