Romney misses a chance to be Reagan-esque.

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Jan. 31 2008 9:24 AM

Romney's No Blow

Mitt misses a chance to derail the Straight Talk Express.

John McCain and Mitt Romney debate 
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John McCain and Mitt Romney debate

If Mitt Romney wants to benefit from the conservatives who hate John McCain, he should have taken his chance to lead them. John McCain presented an opportunity days ago by distorting Romney's position on Iraq. At the debate Wednesday, the last before the big Super Tuesday vote, the two men bickered over McCain's misleading characterization of Romney's view. Romney got quasi-indignant, calling out McCain for twisting his words. He turned to moderator Anderson Cooper to say McCain was making a Washington-style attack.

It was a strong rebuttal, but not strong enough. Romney's opportunity was to go at the central claim of McCain's candidacy, his boast that he is a straight talker. This would have been like liquid Reagan to the conservative critics who dislike McCain's positions on immigration, campaign finance, and taxes but are reduced to sputtering by what they see as McCain's sanctimoniousness. It's why they derisively call him St. John. If Romney had given voice to their critique by arguing that McCain praises himself for truth-telling while trafficking in a distortion, it would have fired up the waiting armies while simultaneously showing that Romney was one of them: Who cares about his flips and flops? Hand me the pitchfork.

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There would have been dangers, of course, to essentially calling McCain a phony to his face. The first is that McCain might have clocked him. Also as McCain pointed out in a swift rebuttal during the debate, Romney doesn't have standing to weep about Washington-style attacks since he's run so many ads that go after McCain and Huckabee and bend their records. Any debate over Iraq takes place on McCain's turf, and while Romney might have standing to claim his opponent is distorting his position, there's no doubt about McCain's larger claim that he was bold and vocal about the troop surge while Romney was careful and muted. But the armies Romney needs to rally don't care that much about those details. Also, all those risks are worth taking for Romney. He's losing.

The CNN focus group of undecided voters loved it when Romney defended himself in the debate, so he had room to defend himself even more forcefully. If Romney had faced McCain directly and leveled the charge about his straight talk it also might have created a television moment, which Romney needed. Such moments live beyond the debate in the next day's news coverage, which is more important than ever when you're competing in more than 20 states at once.

McCain didn't have a great debate—he had foggy answers on immigration and ducked altogether a question about his claim in 2001 that the Bush tax cuts were too skewed to the wealthy—but he is benefiting from two of the greatest debate bookends a candidate could ever want. He was endorsed by Rudy Giuliani before the debate, and on Wednesday he's scheduled to get Arnold Schwarzenegger's support. Romney needed something to break through the news coverage those two will create for McCain nationally and in the two key Super Tuesday states of New York and California.

Creating powerful debate moments is a hard thing to do, but Romney knew the issue of his Iraq remarks was going to come up, since it played such a big role in the days before the vote in Florida. He also could have found a way to bring it up himself. Ronald Reagan, at whose library the debate took place, knew how to create such powerful debate moments. Romney praised the former president (as they all did), but he missed his chance to emulate him.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.