Mitt Romney can't out-perform Newt Gingrich in the Republican primary debates because only Gingrich actually believes in what he's saying, at least at the moment he's saying it. Gingrich was the star of Thursday's debate, as usual, and Romney's backers "acknowledge that their candidate is not the most agile on the debate stage or on the stump," Politico's Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns report, but "Reeling off one-liners isn’t a qualification for the White House anyway." Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, for example, said a flashy debate performance just wasn't Romney's "style," while fellow Romney ally Sen. Rob Portman said his problem was that the moderator didn't ask enough questions about the economy. It's true the only moments Romney shines are when he's talking about the economy -- he's passionate, he talks with his arms, he lets go of that tight smile -- but that seems to be because he actually believes it when he says "I know how the economy works." On almost every other issue, Romney betrays an uneasiness with his current position -- like when he was goaded into using the term Romneycare for the first time. Conservatives usually use that slang to belittle Romney's record.
Take his position on not releasing his tax returns until April, when the primary will (likely) be over. Politico's Maggie Haberman writes that Romney's response on the tax question was surprisingly "marble-mouthed," given that he had so long to prepare for it. "Tax returns are not, as Romney advisers correctly assert privately, generally an issue voters really care about," she says. "But the combination of Romney’s personal wealth and a narrative about him being distant and opaque is making it a sustained media issue." But would Romney be so awkward talking about it if he really believed his returns contained nothing embarrassing? As NBC News' First Read suggests, Romney essentially said he didn't want to release the documents because he wants to win. Seriously! “I want to make sure that I beat President Obama. And every time we release things drip by drip, the Democrats go out with another array of attacks,” he said. NBC writes, "Just asking, but doesn’t that suggest there’s something there? If he’s worried about attacks, then there is something to hide, right?"
Or abortion. When Rick Santorum challenged Romney's record on abortion, Romney stiffly said, "I'm not questioned on character and integrity very often," as if implying, unlike certain other candidates on stage. But New York's Jonathan Chait argues, "If you define a question about the sincerity of his issue conversion as an attack on his character -- which is precisely how Romney defined it here -- he has been attacked on that repeatedly in every campaign he’s ever run."
Sununu told Politico that Gingrich "has hot rhetoric and conservatives like hot rhetoric." But it's not like Romney didn't try -- on his signature issue, of course. He's just really terrible at it. "We're going to get hit hard by Barack Obama, but we're going to stuff it down his throat that it is capitalism and freedom that makes us strong," he promised. The crowd cheered, but no standing ovation.