Tuesday was a bad night for Mitt Romney, maybe the very worst of any of these debates. It started badly with the joke about Mitt being his real first name, when it was not–and ended badly with a weak answer about “unexpected threats” that did not play at all to Romney’s strengths on international economics.
Romney joined a debate with Gingrich on immigration, and did not knock him down. He joined a debate with Jon Huntsman on Afghanistan, and again failed to emerge dominant. The gravitas gap between him and the other candidates is narrowing, as these new not Mitts meet Romney on much more equal terms than the previous not Mitts.
The most telling retorts of the evening belonged to Gingrich against Ron Paul. The biggest news of the night was made by Gingrich too, on immigration and the path to legalization.
Maybe most relevantly: this hall tonight–packed to the rafters with DC think tank establishment types–ought to have been effortless Mitt territory, and it was not. The people in this hall know well, all too well, Gingrich’s manifold flaws and weaknesses. Yet they warmed to him, ready to receive him back, not because they trust him, but because he excites them.
For the first time since Rick Perry’s abrupt fizzle, we can see the emergence of a genuine “establishment problem” for Romney–and that’s ominous for his hopes.