Mitt the Unassailed

Manchester, New Hampshire —Well, that was unremarkable.

The last presidential debate until another begins ten hours from now saw none of Mitt Romney’s challengers actually challenge him. His toughest challenge probably came from George Stephanopoulos, who asked him if his assertions on Bain Capital’s job creation were really on the level—neither Newt, Ron, Jon nor the two Ricks, confronted Romney with anything as potentially threatening to his lead.

Part of the problem, as my colleague Jamelle Bouie has pointed out, is that a number of these guys don’t really seem to be running for president. Ron Paul, who took off two-and-a-half days between the Iowa caucuses and his arrival in New Hampshire yesterday afternoon, is simply running to spread the libertarian word, and take shots at his inconstantly conservative rivals (focusing tonight on Rick Santorum—not Romney). Paul had a good night pitching to libertarians and anti-warriors. Santorum had a good night, too, but it’s not likely that he can overtake Paul for second place here—the state is far more libertarian than it is socially reactionary. Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul demonstrated yet again their irrelevance in the race. Huntsman’s political tin ear was on clear display in his sudden lapse into Chinese while answering a question on U.S.-China relations. He would have done better to answer in Esperanto. Rick Perry’s one notable line was to suggest we should return to Iraq. Clearly, this is a Texas governor thing.

One of the striking things about the Republican field is the degree to which they now disparage Wall Street (while still calling for Dodd-Frank’s repeal) and sing the praises of manufacturing. Santorum would eliminate the tax on US manufacturers, Romney would impose tariffs on Chinese goods if they don’t revalue their currency and Huntsman would bolster manufacturing through means as yet unspecified. They all understand—as does Obama—that Americans truly dislike the rise of finance over manufacturing as our dominant economic sector, though none of them— including Obama—have a clear idea what to do to reverse it. It defies all credulity that Romney, the man who built Bain Capital, really wants to diminish finance, but it will be fascinating to see him campaign across Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, for instance, as manufacturing’s champion against Obama. This will be the battle of two guys without much cred, save for Obama’s commitment to save the Detroit Three. Over the past month, Obama has made a number of key changes to immigration policy to secure Latino support. Whether he’s capable of tilting more to manufacturing—giving domestic manufacturing a tax break along the lines suggested by Santorum or progressives like former IBM executive Ralph Gomory (who also backs tax changes favoring domestic production) is unclear.  On its merits both as politics and policy, such a change should meet little resistance within the administration, but it’s hard to see the likes of Tim Geithner going along with it.

At all events, it more than ever looks like Mitt Romney will be Barack Obama’s opponent. Hard to see how Michael Bloomberg could wedge himself into that contest as a third alternative—two guys from Wall Street? But then, America, as Romney is wont to say, remains the land of opportunity.