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.

The newest edition of Newt Gingrich was on display, too, and the old rascal would have won in a walk if (a) he didn't have his past with all its character issues, and (b) this was a campaign for president not of the United States but of a think tank or poli-sci school.

It's one thing to know political theory, another to be a successful statesman. Offer the voters theoretics without much experience in the great world out there, and you have a prefect recipe for failure, if not tragedy. (See Woodrow Wilson, not to mention the current occupant of the Oval Office.)

As for the the supporting cast in this show, it didn't win any Oscars. Even if it may have connected with a soundbite or two. The way Herman Cain did when he noted, "America needs to learn to take a joke." He's another businessman candidate for president, but a Wendell Willkie he ain't. Or even a Mitt Romney.

Those keeping a box score Thursday evening could safely put Mr. Cain down as less than a great politician, whetever his charms. Ditto, Rick Santorum, whose time has come but also gone in national politics.

Have I left anybody out? Oh, yes, Jon Huntsman. He also attended. And soon enough he'll be left out of the running.

Oh, yes. There's also, as always, Ron Paul. What would a presidential debate be without a village crank? Congressman Paul is to the GOP what Dennis Kucinich is to the other party -- a true believer. In all kinds of improbable things. Mr. Paul isn't just the classic isolationist in foreign affairs; he's isolated from realities all around, whether he's being a money crank or some other kind at the time.

A political party is always divided between its passions and its calculations. The candidate who satisfies its passions -- a Barry Goldwater, a George McGovern, a Robert A. Taft -- may prove a disaster in the general election, when not just the party faithful but independents and the more flexible members of the other party will need to be courted. Which is the attraction of an Eisenhower. Or, this year, a Mitt Romney.


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.