Here’s one way to look at Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate at Dartmouth College: it’s just the latest stop in the road – a road that’s already taken the hopefuls from South Carolina to New Hampshire and Iowa, then west to California, followed by two stops in Florida, all leading up to a return to the Granite State.
Here’s a second way to look at the GOP’s state of affairs: after months of waiting for a big-name game-changer to hop into the race, this is the Republicans’ first “all-in” debate. No more waiting for Godot . . . Chris Christie, Sarah Palin, Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels – or even The Donald. Someone on this stage will be the party’s standard-bearer next fall – a reality that fence-sitting Republicans need to accept.
And here’s still a third way to see things: homefield advantage.
Tuesday’s debate just happens to be in Mitt Romney’s backyard (the former Massachusetts governor owning a summer home on Lake Winnipesaukee). Moreover, the subject matter – economics – plays to Romney’s strength as a statesman and investor.
Bottom line: if there’s a moment for Romney to seize control of the race and start separating himself from the pack, this might be it.
Granted, there are other compelling subplots to Tuesday night’s festivities.
After two underwhelming debate performances, does Texas Gov. Rick Perry right the ship? The past couple of weeks have been Herman Cain’s moment in the sun. Is he a passing fad, or someone to be taken seriously as a top-tier candidate?
As for myself, the focus is on Romney.
And that’s due to two sets of numbers:
- A Quinnipiac survey, released last week, showing that Romney’s edge over President Obama on the economy has grown from 4 to 10 points over the past month (49%-39%). Perry leads Obama by only 3 points (45%-42%). That jibes with a Washington Post-Bloomberg poll (same folks hosting the debate, btw), showing that a slim plurality of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents trust Romney the most on the economy.
- The divide within the Republican field. That same WaPo-Bloomberg poll gives Romney 24%, Cain 16% and Perry 15%, with the rest of the wannabes mired in single digits. And so it’s been since this race began. It’s two camps of decideds: a solid group of Romneyites, maxing out between 25%-30%, and the other three-fourths seemingly with one trait in common: they don’t like Mitt.
A school of thought holds that, for now, it’s best for Romney to channel his inner Alfred E. Neuman and take a “what, me worry?” approach to the primaries. He has plenty of organization and money in the bank; in theory, if he plays mistake-free ball, then enough undecideds should start to break his way. And forget whatever plurality he stitches together -- 30%-35%-40%. A win’s a win.
Just ask John McCain, the last GOP nominee.
The flip side to that argument: backing into the nomination in such an non-compelling manner might doom Romney in a general election as candidates who can’t stoke their party’s base (like McCain) tend to fare poorly when it comes to drawing independents.
So rather than play it safe and stay above the fray as the amiable Fred Rogers of the Republican field, perhaps it’s time for Romney, the one-time venture capitalist and investment banker, to channel a different “Mister Rogers”.
And that would be T.J. Rodgers, Dartmouth Class of 1970.
Adjectives to describe Silicon Valley’s Mister Rodgers’ style and approach: “wry, “in your face”, “unabashed free-market capitalist.”
As you’ll read here, he’s not averse to walking into a room of green investors and start lecturing away on the dangers of government subsidies and overreacting to global warming.
Rodgers (seen here in an “Uncommon Knowledge” interview with Hoover’s Peter Robinson) offers audiences the following guidelines:
- Don’t rely (for long) on government funding or subsidies.
- "Run like hell" when you hear the terms "green jobs, green economy, double bottom line or carbon tax."
- Believe in the free market and freedom of the individual.
- Believe in the 1st, 4th and 10th Amendments.
In other words: Rodgers is bullish on capitalism; he’s bearish on government meddling. And that sounds like the right balance for Romney to strike, without going to a Ron Paul-like libertarian extreme: defend the free market, stand up to Occupy Wall Street, clarify what government should and shouldn’t be doing in the midst of a prolonged recession.
And, in doing so, perhaps point out the failed handwork of one Timothy Geithner, Dartmouth Class of 1983.
This would require a slight adjustment on Romney’s part.
Rather than presenting himself as an updated product (as it’s his fourth campaign, this would be Political Version 4.0), the candidate should think of himself as a start-up – and start talking to GOP voters as if they were his angel investors.
For Romney, that would mean returning to the basics of why he’s in the race, his belief in whatever mission he believes he represents, and an unwavering confidence in the country’s future. Like a venture capitalist: think ambitiously, speak optimistically, close the deal.
By doing so, perhaps Romney succeeds in building upon that 25% ceiling.
Which, in turn, would give the candidate something more important than a round of financing – and that would be advancing past the first round of voting, to the general election.