At about 10:28pm tonight [on Saturday], as Mitt Romney pivoted from a question on tax loopholes and started in with, “the real issue is vision,” I had recorded this thought in my notes, “He just clinched the nomination.”
Romney said, as he often has, that Barack Obama has put America on the road to decline and is trying to make America more like Europe. He made reference to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as he often has—which helps to explain why he polls about as well with supporters of the tea party movement, who revered and often reference the Founding documents, as with non-supporters—and proclaimed that the question in this election was whether America was going to remain “a unique nation”and whether it would “return to the principles on which it was founded.” To which Newt Gingrich then meekly concurred, adding some caveats.
The only things following were an interchange between Jon Huntsman and Romney on how we should deal with China, in which Romney held his own and then, after the commercial break, the silly question about what you’d be doing on Saturday night if you weren’t running for president and debating.
At a time when several political observers are hinting at -- and even welcoming -- a brokered convention, Barone’s assertion is a tantalizing one. Indeed, anyone who watched both debates over the weekend must surely recognize that Mitt Romney is the most polished and capable debater in the Republican field. The most telling moment, as Erika wrote about yesterday, was on Sunday morning when former Speaker Newt Gingrich accused Romney of “pious baloney” for the former governor’s repeated and pointed claims that he was not a career politician. Romney, however, explained that citizenship has always been at the heart of his political ambitions. This, in effect, was an adept answer that deflected at least some attention away from the charge that he is a cutthroat and opportunistic political figure.
To be sure, I cannot conceive of any scenario in which Mitt Romney loses the New Hampshire primary tomorrow night. That said, it’s way too early to speculate that Mitt Romney has already won the nomination. Newt Gingrich, for example, once remarked that the 2012 presidential election (and I agree with him) will be the most important political contest in American history since 1860. For this reason, the Republican electorate is becoming increasingly unpredictable and suggests we cannot know – or accurately anticipate – who will support Mitt Romney in more conservative states such as South Carolina. In fact, if Rick Santorum wins the nation’s most consequential southern primary, this race will be far from over. And that, I suspect, is a game-changer many dissatisfied Republicans are looking for.