Paul Greenberg

Who says presidential debates and straw polls don't matter? The field of Republican presidential candidates has narrowed a bit after the presidential debate-cum-straw poll at Ames, Ia., home of Iowa State, corn-fed beauties of every species, and the GOP's straw-in-the-wind poll.

These up-close-and-personal encounters of the political kind give Americans a chance to judge the field. And after each one, there aren't as many contenders as there were before. The choice is clarified.

What the GOP, and the country, need next year is a candidate who can capture the imagination and, even more important, the trust of the American people. Without such a leader, all the soundbite politics, talking-point recitations, and general mud-rasslin' won't matter much. As vulnerable as a sitting president might look, the way Harry Truman did in 1948, you can't hardly beat somebody with a nobody.

See the presidential campaign of Thomas E. Dewey, a somebody who thought he could coast to victory that year, but proved a nobody when it came to presidential politics. The aim of all these exercises so far in advance of Election Day is to produce a somebody.

Right now the race for the GOP's presidential nomination is still in flux. Which is why Texas' Rick Perry chose this moment to throw his ten-gallon in the center ring. Some of the saplings were cleared away by the proceedings in Ames, but there's still a political eternity between now and Tuesday, November 6, 2012.

The frontrunner for his party's nomination, whatever running in front at this very early stage means, remains Mitt Romney. Other candidates may have thrown off some sparks in the debate, but the most common adjective applied to Mr. Romney's performance was presidential. Mainly because he didn't respond in kind to the occasional slings and arrows thrown his way but rose above them.

If he had a memorable line, it came after a dig from Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota who, after the results of the straw poll came in, was also a former presidential candidate. Given a chance to respond, all the former governor of Massachusetts did was say, "That's just fine." Mitt Romney has a way of outclassing his critics.

There were a passel of other candidates on that stage in Ames. All lined up like breeds at the Westminster Kennel Club's annual exposition. Tim Pawlenty's big mistake was to tangle with Michele Bachmann, who came out of the debate looking like a woman of principle. And one who's not about to back down when she's challenged.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.