The leading contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination showed their stuff in a nationally televised debate in New Hampshire Monday night, and they weren't the "weak field" some polls had suggested.
If there was a common denominator that permeated the two-hour debate, it was the candidates' collective strategy to train all of their political firepower on President Obama: his failure to restore robust economic growth; his failure to lead in foreign policy; his spendthrift policies that have plunged the country into unfathomable debt.
This was a big disappointment to the national news media and the well-paid TV analysts who hoped the candidates would start beating each other up, but it wasn't for lack of trying.
For a couple of weeks or more, the expectation was that some of the participants would gang up on Mitt Romney for the "Romneycare" plan he enacted as governor of Massachusetts. John King, CNN's moderator of the debate, tried to coax former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty into attacking the state health care law he has dubbed Obamneycare, but he wasn't biting.
These candidates, front-runners and dark horses alike, had only one goal in mind from the moment they bolted from the gate: Cut Obama down to size. And they did it with relish.
Brandishing his business credentials as a successful venture capital investor who helped dozens of start-up companies, Romney went after Obama for attempting to pick the economy's winners and losers with disastrous results.
"There is a perception in this country that the government knows better than the private sector, that Washington and President Obama have a better view of how an industry ought to run," Romney said. He kept hammering away throughout the debate on the nearly 20 million unemployed or underemployed Americans and Obama's utter failure to turn the economy around. If anything, he has made the economy worse, Romney said.
Defending his sweeping tax-cut plan to sharply boost economic expansion and job creation, Pawlenty said, "This idea that we can't have 5 percent growth in America is hogwash," noting the Reagan tax cuts in the 1980s led to nearly 25 years of virtually uninterrupted economic growth.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, attempting to get his campaign back on its feet after the mass resignation of his top staff, showed why he still remains one of the most scintillating speakers on the campaign trail.
"The Obama administration is an anti-jobs, anti-business, anti-American energy destructive force. This is a depression."
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who chairs the tea party caucus in the House, flatly predicted Obama would be a one-term president, and showed why her combative style has made her one of the most popular Republican figures on the talk-show circuit. She called for "bringing the tax rates down and passing the mother of all regulatory repeal bills."
The others -- former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, and former Godfather's Pizza executive Herman Cain -- remain very long shots. But one or two others may yet enter the field, including former governor Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, possibly doubling the number of governors seeking the nomination.
Meanwhile, the Gallup Poll released a spate of new numbers on Tuesday that significantly boosted Romney's chances in the GOP sweepstakes, but delivered more bad news to the White House on the economy.
A Gallup poll between June 8-11 showed Republican support for Romney climbing from 17 percent in late May to 24 percent, widening his lead over Sarah Palin (16 percent), who has not said whether she will be a candidate. All other contenders, or potential contenders, are buried in single digits.
But as Obama and his advisers continued to struggle this week in the face of a persistently dismal economy, unable to come up with a viable economic plan to get it back on track, Gallup reported that its economic confidence index was in a free fall.
"A sharp deterioration in the jobs outlook and six straight weeks of Wall Street declines sent Americans' confidence in the economy plunging to an average of minus-35 during the week ending June 12 -- a decline of nine percentage points from two weeks ago, and six points worse than it was in the same week a year ago," Gallup said.
Only 30 percent of Americans surveyed said the economy was getting better, down from 37 percent in May, nearing the low for the year. Nearly half of all those polled (47 percent) said that current economic conditions were poor. "These ratings are three points worse than the previous week and three points lower than a year ago," Gallup said.
But these numbers represent something much more than just the latest political trend. When businesses and people lose confidence in their leaders and their nation's economy, they begin cutting back, spending less, investing less, and that economic pessimism feeds upon itself.
In 2008, Americans voted for an inexperienced candidate on the basis of hope. Now they are concluding that the man they elected to fix the economy doesn't have a clue.