Mitt Romney's convincing victory in the Florida primary erased his earlier defeats and perhaps any serious obstacle to his nomination. The question that still troubles party leaders, however, is the damage he will sustain before returning to Tampa in September for their convention.
Triumph could cost Romney much more than the million dollars or so that bought each point of his 46-32 margin over Newt Gingrich. Already the former speaker has shaped the plutocratic image of Romney now visible in national polls. A furious, wounded Gingrich could go still further — demanding, for instance, that Romney release many more years of tax returns.
But the electorate can also learn much about Romney from Ron Paul, if the Texan ever summons the courage to articulate their profound differences on war, national security and defense spending.
The scorching character assaults that incinerated Gingrich have left him yearning for revenge, and he is a past master of the politics of personal destruction. In Florida, he became the target of the same tactics and rhetoric that he popularized among Republicans two decades ago, when he created GOPAC to take over Congress.
Although Gingrich's own copious defects often blunt the impact of his attacks on Romney — as they did during the final debate in Florida — his message can still be effective. And he will continue to dream of discovering the silver bullet that will take down his patrician tormentor — perhaps a document proving Romney, like so many other multimillionaires, used loopholes to pay no income taxes at all while making those lucrative private equity deals.
Meanwhile Paul, admired by many on the left for his antiwar statements, has so far avoided directly criticizing Romney's foreign policy positions or advisers. That is surprising, if only because the frontrunner is so plainly a captive of the Republican Party's ultra-hawkish neoconservative faction, which dominates the campaign advisory team he announced last fall. On Tuesday evening, Romney's blustering prattle about American military power sounded like former Vice President Dick Cheney at his most disturbed. And like Cheney, Romney is a "chicken-hawk" who avoided service in Vietnam by signing up for deferments (to perform Mormon missionary work — in France!).
Although Paul's unorthodox views on the Mideast conflict and Islamist terrorism may be unpopular, most Americans today share his aversion to foreign wars — and would be dismayed to learn that Romney has hired on the same discredited crew that misled us into Iraq, and that botched the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan at a cost of trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.
A military veteran who served at the height of the Cold War, as he often points out, Paul has the credentials to expose Romney's hollow, bellicose but still dangerous posturing. What remains to be seen in the weeks ahead is whether he has the grit to do so.
Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.