After Monday night’s presidential debate, a wave of queasiness washed over establishment Republicans.
Mitt Romney came to Myrtle Beach expecting to be anointed. He had been told, by everyone who mattered, that the nomination was his to claim.
Many Republicans had already decided that the nominating process was over. Confident that they had chosen a winning candidate they were fast making their peace with someone they considered less than perfect.
Their reason may yet prove to be sound: Romney might well have locked it up.
And then there was Myrtle Beach.
For perhaps the first time on the debate stage Romney was the target. He was under attack, and he reacted defensively.
It is not very surprising. As I have been trying to point out, when you are being assaulted, physically or verbally, your first impulse is to be defensive. We saw Rick Perry thrown off his game by attacks during earlier debates. And we saw Newt Gingrich make a number of missteps after suffering a barrage of criticism and attack ads.
One imagines that Romney did not expect to come under attack. He reacted tentatively, almost becoming tongue-tied. And he boxed himself into an untenable position about releasing his tax returns.
He told Republican voters that they would not be able to see his tax returns until after they had chosen him their nominee.
Why wasn’t he better prepared? I assume that he was suffering from overconfidence. He was prepared for a coronation; he ran into a mugging.
He will surely improve his performance in the next debate.
It is also true that Newt Gingrich performed exceptionally well. He was, the saying goes, on his game.
After the debate we began hearing hints of buyer’s remorse from Romney supporters, but we have also been hearing seller’s remorse by those who had previously dismissed Gingrich.
Now, a wild card just entered the fray. Last night Sarah Palin said that if she were a South Carolina primary voter, she would vote for Newt.
If conservative Republicans are going to slow down Romney’s momentum, they will need to unify behind a single candidate. Palin has now told them that it should be Newt. We will soon know how much influence she still has.
Note well that Palin offered a carefully formulated position, one that was decidedly nuanced and highly diplomatic.
Those who have impugned the intelligence of Sarah Palin should spend some serious time analyzing her brilliantly crafted statement last night.
She did not throw her support behind Gingrich; she did not even declare him to be the best candidate. She did not say that Romney was a flawed candidate or that she could not support him.
She stated her belief that it was too soon to end the nomination process. She sees the debates making the candidates better. The crucible of debates, she says, has improved the performance of the candidates. They are becoming better at presenting their arguments and clearer in articulating policy.
The Romney campaign wants to lock down the nomination by the end of January. Now, Sarah Palin is telling her fellow Republicans that they are being too precipitous, that they should step back, take a deep breath, and think things through before they decide to walk down the aisle with Mitt Romney.