The Shook One

By and large, this year, the Republican presidential debates have been great for Mitt Romney. For the most part, they’ve played to his strengths—his command of policy, his “presidential” appearance, and his skill as a debater—and haven’t brought much attention to his weaknesses. What’s more, thanks to their outsized influence on the nomination contest, they’ve been the place where Romney’s rivals have collapsed on themselves, from former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s “Obamaneycare” miss, to nearly everything said by Texas Governor Rick Perry.

As of late, however, that dynamic has begun to change. On the strength of his debate performances and his the “anti-Romney” du jour, Newt Gingrich has emerged as the new front-runner in the Republican presidential contest. Romney remains in his second-place spot, but this is almost in spite of the fact that he’s been buffeted by a wave of criticism over the last two weeks. Republicans are unhappy with his opportunistic embrace of conservative orthodoxy—and have begun to hammer him for it—Democrats are angry about his casual disregard for truth in political advertising, and the news media is irked by his refusal to answer questions or provide access.

Now, it’s Romney who has something to prove in the debates, while Gingrich can sit back and watch as his rivals fight among themselves. In fact, this is exactly what happened at Saturday’s debate in Iowa, where Gingrich disarmed each of his competitors, Romney struggled to present himself as the only real choice. Moreover, in trying to reposition himself as unflappable, Romney did the exact opposite, showing the extent to which he has been rattled by recent events. Hence, Romney’s worst debate moment, and the one that Democrats will broadcast across the country if he is the nominee. Watch:

Romney’s campaign denies that this was anything but part of the plan—“Mitt Romney knew that Rick Perry wouldn’t take the bet because it’s a phony attack,” said Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom in an e-mail to Reuters, “By backing down, Perry looked weak.”

Of course, this is spin. I guarantee this wouldn’t have happened if Romney were comfortable in the pole position of the race. As it stands, neither of those things are true, and the pressure of a competitive race has begun to chip at his composure and reveal the degree to which he is self-conscious about his abrupt reversals of political belief.

None of this is to say that Romney can’t win the nomination, from money, to organization, to institutional support, he is still on the path to victory, but that his erstwhile persona—Unflappable Mitt—has been damaged by events. The question is whether he rebuilds or moves to something else.