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Debate Does Nothing To Derail Romney's 'Kudzu Campaign'

<p>Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney maintained his frontrunner status in the GOP presidential debate at Dartmouth College on Tuesday. </p>
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney maintained his frontrunner status in the GOP presidential debate at Dartmouth College on Tuesday.

Mitt Romney continued his dogged, incremental pursuit of the White House, dominating the GOP presidential debate on the economy Tuesday night. The man once touted as his most formidable opponent was barely a factor.

It was a very bad night for that opponent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose plan to revive the distressed American economy essentially boiled down to "drill, baby, drill."

While it's too early to declare Perry a goner, and Romney inevitable — this is still, after all, just a pundit primary and no voter will mark a ballot until January — the path for "anybody but Romney" is looking increasingly unlikely.

Even former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain, the latest GOP candidate to surge in the polls, looked diminished, with a spirited but vague defense of his radical 9-9-9 flat tax proposal and the choice of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as the kind of fed head he'd name.

Cue exaggerated eye roll from anti-Federal Reserve candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who drew loud applause from the New Hampshire crowd when he repudiated Cain's Greenspan suggestion.

Greenspan, you may recall, has been sharply criticized for fueling the housing bubble by keeping interest rates artificially low.

But it was Perry's inability to articulate a vision for the country beyond domestic energy harvesting that, despite his success in getting elected to three terms as Texas governor, suggests he remains not ready for prime time on a national stage.

His one-note plan — to improve the economy by opening up areas to domestic energy production — stood in stark contrast not only to Romney's 59-point blueprint, but also to Cain's flat tax scenario, however questionable.

Perry promised that he would lay out an economic plan "over the next three days," a jarring statement to make during the first debate to focus solely on the economy. He then suggested, with a grin, that Romney has had a lot more time to put his plan together.

Which simply fed into Romney's opening sales pitch: that he's "prepared to be a leader."

Perry may be able to take some solace in the fact that the debate may not have been viewed by a wide swath of potential voters: it was televised on Bloomberg TV, a growing television presence that boasts an affluent and international viewership, but not a go-to spot on the dial for most Americans. The debate was also live-streamed on the Internet at the websites of debate sponsors, Bloomberg and the Washington Post.

Romney felt so comfortable at the table with his seven opponents that he dared utter the word "compromise" when moderator Charlie Rose pressed candidates to outline how they'd address the political dysfunction in Washington.

The former Massachusetts governor even made a rare-in-these-times suggestion that there may be reasonable Democrats out there, willing to work with reasonable Republicans.

That almost amounted to blasphemy at a debate during which former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for the imprisonment of congressional Demcorats who co-sponsored new legislation regulating banks and Wall Street.

Perry's disappearing act meant only good things for Romney, who largely ignored the Texas governor, and left it to his new foil, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, to remind the audience that Perry was once a Democrat (though more than two decades ago).

With the focus of the debate squarely on the economy, it fell to former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to slyly bring up Perry's embrace of a pastor who has called Mormonism a cult.

"I promise this won't be about religion," Huntsman said, when directing a question to Romney, then adding, his voice tinged in sarcasm as he turned to Perry: "Sorry about that, Rick."

Both Romney and Huntsman are Mormons.

Hours before the debate, Romney appeared with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who not only endorsed the former governor, but called Perry's association with Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress "beneath" the office of the presidency. Romney followed, calling on Perry to repudiate Jeffress's comments.

Romney still faces hurdles, most significantly among his party's base for his changing positions on issues including abortion and the bailout of Detroit automakers. He's also under fire for the Massachusetts health care plan he signed into law when governor — and which the Obama administration used as a model for its national health care overhaul legislation.

But Romney's message, and defense of his record, have become so polished and practiced that his opponents, even given a grab bag of potent issues, are unable to knock him off course.

He's looking strong in the first primary state of New Hampshire, and may do better-than-expected in Iowa, even though the caucus-going party members are dominated by cultural conservatives and those who identify with the Tea Party.

It's been left to Democrats to attempt to weaken, if not derail, Romney: the Democratic National Committee has launched a website titled "," that contrasts the candidate's shifting positions in simple videos. (Perry also released an online ad comparing "Romneycare" to "Obamacare.")

Though candidates have made their runs against him only to quickly recede, Romney has stayed a steady course.

He's running what NPR's Frank James has characterized as a "kudzu campaign."

Like the expanding, infiltrating Japanese vine, James says, before you know it, Romney's taken over.

The question now is whether he can run out the clock to the New Year, when the real tests begin.

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.