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Keller @ Large: Romney Still The Front-Runner After Iowa Debate

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AMES, IA - AUGUST 11: Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (L), Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. (C), and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty during the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate on August 11, 2011 at the CY Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa. This is the first Republican presidential debate in the state ahead of Saturday's all important Iowa Straw Poll. (Charlie Neibergall-Pool/Getty Images)

AMES, IA – AUGUST 11: Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (L), Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. (C), and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty during the Iowa GOP/Fox News Debate on August 11, 2011 at the CY Stephens Auditorium in Ames, Iowa. This is the first Republican presidential debate in the state ahead of Saturday’s all important Iowa Straw Poll. (Charlie Neibergall-Pool/Getty Images)

WBZ-TV's Jon Keller Jon Keller
Jon Keller is WBZ-TV News' Political Analyst, and his "Keller A...
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BOSTON (CBS) – The New Hampshire primary is less than six months away, and Thursday night’s nationally televised debate involving eight of the Republican candidates for president, given the timing in the middle of major political and financial turmoil, was a significant moment in that race.

It was a moment that seemed perfect for the candidates to step up and take on what’s emerging as the major challenge in the GOP presidential race – establish yourself as the best alternative to fundraising and polling front-runner Mitt Romney.

Keep in mind, over the past half-century, the Republican party has established a pretty clear track record of choosing as their presidential nominee well-known establishment figures who have run before. Nixon in 1960 and ‘68; Reagan in ‘80; Bush (one) in ’88; Dole in ’96; McCain in 2008.

Listen to Jon’s commentary:

The candidate who fits that mold this time around is Romney, who has the money and organization to justify his front-runner status. There was no better time than Thursday night for one or more of his competitors to take him on directly.

But no one really did.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty gave him a light slap on the wrist for supporting universal health care, but didn’t follow up. The toughest challenges to Romney’s record came from the journalists on the panel. But when he offered up dubious spin in response, like his claim that he never raised taxes when we here in Massachusetts know that many state fees and fines were increased when he was governor, no one called him on it.

WBZ’s Jon Keller is at large:

And when Romney boxed himself into a glaring contradiction, claiming that it was wrong for the feds to dictate health care policy to the states but OK for them to dictate policy on gay marriage, nobody followed up on that, either.

If you believe, as I do, that campaigns are a test of the strategic and managerial skills of the candidates, then you’d have to say Romney’s challengers all flunked their exam Thursday night. They have got to draw favorable contrasts between him and themselves, emphatically and quickly, in forums where voters are watching.

Instead, today, Mitt Romney is laughing all the way to the bank.

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