US elections 2012: Mitt Romney cements status as Republican front-runner
MITT Romney advanced his status as the front-runner in the Republican primary field with a confident debating performance that led many in the party to conclude that the race to compete against President Barack Obama was now his to lose.
The former Massachusetts governor appeared calm and self-assured as he brushed off barbs from his seven rivals for the nomination and presented his credentials as a businessman with the executive experience to lead the economy out of difficulty.
Though he has yet to win many hearts among the grassroots supporters, he remains on top in the polls and the established apparatus of elected members, donors and commentators is beginning to coalesce around his campaign.
With less than three months before the first nominating contest in Iowa, his rivals are running out of time to dramatically alter the contest.
"He has the experience, organisation and money to compete beyond the early states where he is favoured," said Robert Bennett, a former Republican governor of Utah. "Big name endorsers and donors who have been waiting on the sidelines to see who will be the winner are now showing up in Romney's camp. The fact that the Obama campaign is bashing Romney at every opportunity shows that they also think he will be the nominee. Anything can still happen, but, at the moment, for Romney, the race is his to lose."
The Politico website declared: "Mitt Romney builds case for inevitability," while Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post said: "Much can change between now and January, but unless other candidates change the dynamics of the race, Romney will slowly but surely move to lock up the nomination."
Mr Romney entered the debate in New Hampshire buoyed by the endorsement of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is regarded by the party faithful as a more reliable conservative but had ignored repeated entreaties to enter the race himself.
"I think he gives us our best opportunity to beat President Obama," said Mr Christie, adding a specific warning to stay away from Mr Romney's main rival, Texas Governor Rick Perry.
"I felt Governor Romney is a better candidate, and I think he'd make a better president," he said.
Alan Glassman, a county chairman in New Hampshire, said: "It's huge. Christie has a following that covers the spectrum. This sends a message across the Republican Party, from the moderates to the super-conservatives, that this is the guy."
Mr Christie appeared alongside Mr Romney at a press conference and then attended the debate, prompting speculation that he would be offered the vice-presidential candidacy.
He denied that had been discussed, but Mr Romney, asked if he would consider the New Jersey governor, said: "Of course. He'd be on anyone's shortlist."
By contrast, Mr Perry has suffered a spectacular decline after swiftly overtaking Mr Romney when he entered the race two months ago. Conservatives have disapproved of his decision to grant university tuition fees to the children of illegal immigrants in his state.
His debating performances have been anaemic and after another flop on Tuesday night he admitted that debating was not "my strong suit". Debates however – there have been seven so far and there is another next Tuesday – are a central part of the campaign, offering voters across the country a chance to see the candidates in action.
He has lost second place in polls to Herman Cain, a former chief executive of a pizza chain who has benefited from his down to earth approach and, at a time when professional politicians are looked down upon, his outsider status.
Mr Romney is a much more confident candidate than he was when losing to Senator John McCain in 2008 and has a lot of money and a disciplined message.
He has also benefited from decisions by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Mr Christie and a couple of other strong-looking candidates not to mount their own White House bids.
His liberal past – he once supported abortion and introduced health care reform similar to that passed nationally by President Barack Obama – has made many conservatives suspicious, and he remains awkward at close quarters. But most observers agree that as decision day approaches primary voters will hold their nose and vote for the candidate most likely to beat Mr Obama.
After the debate, Romney aides could barely contain their glee, but publicly they downplayed the impact of his solid showing and Mr Christie's endorsement.
"I don't want to draw any grand conclusions," said strategist Eric Fehrnstrom. "Any campaign is a roller-coaster ride."