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Romney rolls on despite conservative concerns

The latest Republican debate was nearly half over before any of Mitt Romney's seven rivals questioned any of his positions. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman finally broke the criticism-free zone, saying the former Massachusetts governor risked a trade war by vowing a hard line against China.

And the two-hour debate was nearly two-thirds over before Texas Gov. Rick Perry raised the Massachusetts health plan that President Obama said was a model for his controversial federal program, prompting Romney to say he was "proud of the fact that we took on a major problem in our state."

Perry, who assailed the plan in a video released earlier this week, failed to follow up, and Romney escaped the debate virtually unscathed while his two top GOP rivals in the polls struggled — Perry to get his campaign back on track and businessman Herman Cain to defend his simplistic 9-9-9 tax plan from rivals who called it impractical and said it invited future tax increases.

"Unscathed" is an apt description for Romney in recent weeks. His poll numbers have remained virtually stagnant as a majority of prospective primary voters bounce around among the conservatives seeking to become his principal GOP foe. Yet despite the muted enthusiasm for Romney among many Republicans, polls continue to show he would be the strongest GOP candidate against Obama. Romney leads in the latest Iowa and New Hampshire surveys, and he continues to amass the kind of war chest that will sustain his presidential bid through the potentially expensive big state primaries next spring.

Potential strong rival and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie not only decided against entering the GOP contest, but Christie also endorsed Romney. Perry's once-skyrocketing candidacy is now reeling because of his poor debate performances, the controversy over a racist name on a ranch his family leased and the flap stirred up by a Dallas minister's assertion that Romney's Mormonism is a "cult."

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Of late, very little attention is being paid to exploiting Romney's political shortcomings, in the Republican primaries or in a general election face-off against Obama. Certainly the Perry video targeted two issues — the Massachusetts health care plan, which Republicans abhor, and the fact that Romney has flip-flopped on many issues, in particular adopting more conservative positions on gay marriage and abortion.

So far neither attack has resonated against Romney as some GOP conservatives expected. And that may remain the case, unless a single conservative rival can unify the large number of Republicans who don't consider Romney a real conservative.

Indeed, Romney's response on health care Tuesday night, in which he was more direct than on previous occasions, seemed designed to help him in a contest against Obama. During the debate, he suggested that his success in passing health reform in cooperation with a Democratic legislative majority may provide strong evidence that he'd be able to get things done as president.

On the other hand, his changes on social issues — abandoning a 1994 vow to be an advocate for gay and lesbian rights by supporting a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage and reversing his position that abortion should be "safe and legal" — may damage him against Obama among the moderate suburbanites who are often crucial swing voters.

Additionally, Romney's embrace of conservative positions on immigration may be general election liabilities. His denunciation of the Texas program granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants may help in the primaries but could hamper his pursuit of Hispanic voters in western and southwestern swing states.

His effort to maintain an all-out anti-Obama position on economic issues includes the denunciation he repeated Tuesday night of the successful initiative to bail out General Motors and Chrysler. Romney's political problem is it helped save many blue-collar jobs in the key electoral states of Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.

If unemployment remains high and Obama's approval level low, none of this may matter in an election that even Obama's camp concedes would be Romney's to lose if it were held today. But in a close election next fall, these factors could be crucial in the states likely to decide who wins.

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