FAQ: What’s wrong with Mitt Romney?

CNN debate in North Charleston. (CNN)
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A conversation with Salon political writer Steve Kornacki about Newt Gingrich and the discomfort of Mitt Romney.

Josh: I understand that Mitt Romney doesn't want to get sucked into a brawl at this point with any of the other candidates. But I was wondering, watching the debate last night, if he wouldn't have been better off being represented by an empty podium.

Steve: I guess in a way that's his campaign strategy: I'll be over there, when you get tired of all these other clowns and want to get serious, come see me.

Josh: Which probably isn't wrong, over the long haul. But, I mean, does that explain the extreme difficulty he seems to have answering incredibly unsurprising questions about his tax returns, or about his own health care plan?

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Steve: No, there's definitely an awkwardness factor. He can come across as really smooth and packaged, but then have surprising trouble thinking on his feet. I remember seeing this back in 1994, when he first ran for the Senate against Kennedy.

The taxes thing is confusing, though. I mean, at first, I figured his campaign had just never figured that this would come up in the primaries—it would be a general-election issue raised by Obama, and Romney could get away with waiting until well after the primary season to deal with it. But the way things have gone this week—and especially after he was caught flat-footed on Monday—you'd think he'd have a ready, firm answer last night. Instead, he basically said: I don't want to put it out there because Democrats will attack me. Which sounded terrible. Does he really think putting it out now might hurt him in the primaries? Is he just being stubborn? Is there some reason he needs a few extra weeks/months to make his returns presentable? I don't know, but I was surprised he wasn't ready for it tonight.

Josh: That's just the thing. Forget about whether performances like this mean he can't win the nomination, because of course they don't. But just in terms of his ability to handle himself in the general election ... Does Gingrich have a point? Is Romney just an ill-equipped debater, or is his record as problematic at a retail level as it seems to be when he's trying to defend it on stage? Would the Obama people be wrong if they were watching this and coming to the conclusion that the pragmatic-choice Republican nominee actually can't take a punch?

Steve: There's something to that, but I'd be careful, because he can be really good too.

Here's what I mean. Watch this clip in its entirety:

It's from the final debate in the 2002 Mass. governor's race, vs. Shannon O'Brien. It actually looked like he was going to lose heading into that debate.

This was the defining clip from the debate, about abortion. It's infuriating to watch now, because you see him claiming that he supports abortion rights with the same insistence that he now claims he was a model pro-life governor. But what he did was devastatingly effective. Basically, his opponent knew he was vulnerable—he'd walked back his previous pro-choice view when he moved to Utah and thought about running for governor there, only to revert to pro-choice when he returned to Massachusetts for '02—and thought it would be easy to demonstrate to viewers.

But he played dumb and insisted the only disagreement was over parental consent laws. Basically, he forced her to take the anti-consent-law position in an effort to expose him as secretly pro-life—but all it did was give him a great talking point for this debate. So she got agitated, it showed, and he calmly chastised her for her manners and took the issue off the table.

He won the election there, I think.

Josh: Is there something to the idea that he's playing a better class of ballplayer here than he was back in Mass.? Because it seems like that's precisely the sort of fudginess that he's not quite getting away with at the moment, even if he inevitables his way to the nomination.

Steve: There is. I'm kind of torn on what to make of him as a general-election candidate. Part of me thinks that even with the reputation for flip-flopping/evasiveness and all of the top-one-percent moments, he'll still basically function as a generic Republican candidate—that is, his deficiencies won't be severe enough to scare away swing voters who want to throw out Obama and are looking for a vehicle. In other words, sure, there'll be plenty of instances where he's clearly and painfully ducking questions and coming off as completely insincere, but it just won't offend people enough to turn on him.

I could see that happening, and I sort of feel that's what happened when he won in Massachusetts in 2002. But I also get the idea that people are now more aware of and outraged by the protected status of the super-rich than they've been in a long time, and that his image could hurt him in a way it wouldn't have just four years ago—and that his refusal to talk straight on anything could provoke a reaction that reaches critical mass. I mean, when he tried to duck the "how many years of returns will you release" question tonight, a Republican audience laughed in his face. They're conditioned to listen for the double-speak.

Josh: Well, so, if we could talk for a second about the author of his misery: Just how well did Gingrich do here? Obviously he couldn't have done much better with the open-marriage question from John King to start the debate. As you point out, attacking the liberal media in a room full of Southern conservatives seems like kind of a no-brainer, tactically. And the fact that it was the first question made the moment all the more dramatic.

But of course "winning" the debate is one thing, and the bigger picture is another. In the process of denying the report he kind of upped the ante by effectively calling his ex-wife a liar, which is certainly not a way to kill the story. So do social-conservative voters in South Carolina (and elsewhere) actually rally to Gingrich because the lefty press is out to get him—like, is it actually possible that this story is somehow a net win for him? Or do they vent at the media for picking on him (by putting his ex-wife on the air, I guess?) but then actually, quietly cast a vote for one of the other candidates, each of whom has been married only once?

Steve: It'll be a fun experiment, huh? My guess is they mostly stay with him, at least here, and that he wins South Carolina. I think the poll I just saw has him winning evangelicals in S.C. by, like, a 42-20 spread over Romney. Now, this was before the Marianne interview, but it's not like Newt's serial adultery is a big secret. So I don;t think the reaction is going to be, "Oh, wait, he was a rotten husband, never mind voting for him" nearly as much as it will be "He's on the verge of winning—of course the media is bringing this up now." So I suspect (but who knows!) he's going to win S.C. and do it with big Christian-right support.

But longer-term, of course, this is just reminder #24,557 to Republican leaders that he'd be a terrible nominee—and if he wins S.C., we'll presumably see the same urgency on their part in bringing him down that we saw when he surged in December.