LAS VEGAS -- Here was the crowd around Mitt Romney's spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom, right after the debate, in the spin room.
Here was the crowd a few seconds later, across the room, as Bachmann spokeswoman Alice Stewart made herself available to reporters.
So: That's one sideshow finished with. Mitt Romney escapes Vegas as he entered it: The frontrunner whom his opponents can't believe is actually winning this thing. His campaign was fast and ready with comments about how, once again, he'd completely vanquished the Rick Perry challenge.
"Perry was awake," shrugged Romney adviser Ron Kaufman. "I'll give him that."
What about Romney's shot at Newt Gingrich, about how the idea-lovin' former Speaker had once liked the idea of a health care mandate?
"Many times, he's agreed with Mitt on mandates," said Kaufman. "Mitt couldn't leave that unsaid."
One reason for the campaign's confidence (let's move right along past the obvious reason that they were spinning): It really looked like the crowd and the media had rejected Perry's aggressive answers. I asked Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan what he made of the boos we heard after his candidate, for the second time, attacked Romney for accidentally employing illegal immigrants once.
"I think they were booing anyone who knowingly hires illegal immigrants," said Sullivan, "who knew it for a year before taking strong action."
Well, maybe. I wanted a good judge on this one, so I found Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, and asked her what she thought of the line.
"I don't have a lot of information," she said, "but the bottom line is, he contracted for labor, and the company he contracted with employed somebody who was illegal. That wasn't Mitt Romney's problem. That was the contractor's problem. [Romney] said he wanted to get e-Verify passed. We have it in Arizona. That might be a good standard for America."
Maybe that was the wrong hill for Perry to start climbing. After all, Romney totally escaped attacks on an issue that's pivotal in ecoomically depressed Nevada: Foreclosures. As the other candidates mumbled about TARP, Romney seemed to develop a critique of government intervention in the housing market that would leave homeowners just as bad off.
"The idea of the federal government running around," Romney said, "and saying, hey, we're going to give you some money for trading in your old car, or we're going to give you a few thousand bucks for buying a new house, or we're going to keep banks from foreclosing if you can't make your payments, these kind of actions on the part of government haven't worked."
Did Romney not want the government to help homeowners? Fehrnstrom told me that the campaign would be out with a housing plan "soon." His competition wasn't really engaged yet, anyway. Only Ron Paul had seemed to say the government should help homeowners. "If you had to give money out," he'd said, "you should have given it to people who were losing their mortgages, not to the banks." Paul spokesman Jesse Benton extended the argument when I followed up about it.
"Maybe if we'd given that $1 trillion to homeowners," said Benton, "they would have used the money the right way."
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