A week from this Monday, seven Republicans will gather at New Hampshire's St. Anselm College for the second GOP debate of the primary season (your candidate questions are welcome).
As with all debates, there's controversy. The event's organzers stipulated that participants don't have to be announced candidates, only "taking substantive steps toward a presidential run". And they have to have earned an average of 2% in three national polls in April and May, or at least 2% in last month's University of New Hampshire survey.
That allowed invitations to be extended to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and (no one title seems to do the job) Donald Trump, even though all three gents have taken a pass on presidential runs. And it shut the door on former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, even though he's an active candidate and has visited the Granite State 10 times as of this weekend.
The (not so?) "maginificent seven" lined up for the June 13 debate: Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Which can mean only one thing on fight -- er, debate -- night: a seven-Republican tit-for-tat means six Republicans ganging up on Romney.
Let's assume Team Romney already knows this. The question: how does their man handle the onslaught?
Here are two suggestions:
First, for what may be the first time in his political career, Romney has to drop the smiles and the measured business-school demeanor and show genuine fire. Nearly every day it seems, and without fail, his fellow Republicans are ripping his Massachusetts health reform, pointing out flip-flops, questioning his core beliefs and telling any and every reporter within listening distance that Romney, as a frontrunner, is a doomed proposition as a party nominee.
This is New Hampshire, mind you, where Ronald Reagan in 1980 famously shut down George H.W. Bush's candidacy by angrily reminding a debate moderator that "I paid for this microphone" (yes, I know that Spencer Tracy said it first, but you've gotta admit: it's a great line). Perhaps it's time for Romney to shed some of the nice-guy persona and stand up to his character assasins.
And maybe the best person to lash out against, especially since she crashed his announcement party last week: Sarah Palin. She won't be there for the June 13, but she's a convenient foil beginning with the presumption that she's far less electable than Romney. What's the harm in Romney asking her and other critics for specifics, not generalities, on how to fix the economy?
Second, perhaps it's high time that Romney readjusted the narrative of how he got to this point in his political evolution.
The nagging sense, among many conservatives, is that Romney is too opportunistic come voting time -- different election, different Mitt (e.g., in a 2008 GOP field heavy with big name moderates, he stressed social conservativism (abortion, faith, over-reaching judges); last week, looking at a mostly conservative field, he sounded like something more akin to a centrist technocrat (economics, economics, economics).
Again, the Reagan example . . .
Once a Democrat and New Dealer, Reagan in the second half of his life established himself as a Republican icon by explaining how his beliefs were the result of a journey and a revelation, during which he had come to see that that the Democratic Party he had abandoned was soft on foreign policy, believed in government-driven approaches to welfare and and housing that had devasating consequences, and was determined to purisue higher taxation guaranteed to stilfe economic expansion.
If I were Romney, my opening statement would begin something along these lines: "I am the only candidate on this stage and in this race who has governered a commonwealth, created jobs and wealth and turned entrepreneurial dreams into reality by having the confidence and courage to wisely invest in the American way of business -- and, oh by the way, brought a Winter Olympics back to life."
"Along the way, here's what I've learned . . ."
That alone won't quell conservatives' doubts. But it starts Romney down a new path. And that's responding to that other great Reagan outrage: "where's the rest of me?"