You can be forgiven if you didn't watch last night's Republican presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, if only because it was the 290th such forum in this election cycle and one can only listen to Ron Paul give a 10-minute disquisition on the virtues of legalizing hallucinogenic mushrooms so many times before beginning to lament the existence of participatory democracy.
Mollie has already correctly identified the high point of the evening: Newt Gingrich's smackdown of Juan Williams when the Fox pundit accused him of being insensitive on racial issues. Newt delivered a bravura response, as he did several times throughout the night, returning to his stride for the first time since he led in the polls late last year. Rick Perry, though paid little attention, also had a very good night, looking like someone who could've been a serious contender for the GOP nomination had he sounded this way in October. Santorum's performance was serviceable. Ron Paul responded to most questions thrown his way in the form of a five-minute Mad Lib.
The big (and disquieting) takeaway from the debate, however, was this: Mitt Romney is still the prohibitive front-runner -- and he looks set to be a very weak one. Romney didn't get hit with anything last night that's going to stick to him. The only new revelation came courtesy of Santorum, who drew him out on the unlikely topic of restoring voting rights for felons after they've served out their sentences. It was an interesting conversation for policy wonks, but not one that's likely to change the trajectory of this race. Barring a major hit (which didn't happen last night), you still have to like Romney's odds going forward.
The problem this poses -- which was on display last night as never before -- is that Romney, like the current president, becomes less palatable the more you see of him. During the course of the two-hour debate, Romney repeatedly came off as peevish, condescending, and generally irritated to have to make his case publicly. When asked why he hasn't yet made his tax returns public, he gave a meandering answer that was itself probably more suspicious than anything in those documents. When baited by Santorum into the voting rights discussion, he seemed legitimately surprised that he had to defend his record in Massachusetts. This was not the performance of someone you'd feel confident sending into a contentious general election campaign.
As I said in last night's debate chat, the thing that worries me most about Romney is his consistent ability to make me dislike him even when I agree with the argument he's making. In talking to other conservatives, I've learned that's not an isolated phenomenon. That's little more than an annoyance for me (and probably most Ricochet readers); there's no question that I'm going to vote for the Republican nominee come November. But for the marginal voters who pick presidents on a gut-check, I'm concerned that Romney won't be able to close the deal. Should he have the nomination essentially locked up by the end of this month, that will leave him with more than nine months of saturation coverage as the general election nominee. That's far too long for someone who seems inconvenienced by the process. If the Romney team doesn't use some of that time to sand down the candidate's rough edges, we could be in for a very unpleasant November.