WASHINGTON—Moderator Wolf Blitzer opened Tuesday's Republican debate by introducing himself and adding, for some reason, "Yes, that's my real name." A few moments later, the party's most plausible nominee for president said the following: "I'm Mitt Romney, and yes, Wolf, that's also my first name." But it's not. Mitt is the candidate's middle name. His first name is Willard.
And people wonder why this guy has an authenticity problem?
The debate, held at Washington's historic DAR Constitution Hall, was focused on foreign policy. The subject matter seemed to offer Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House, the opportunity to highlight his experience and perhaps begin consolidating his sudden front-runner status. But if he expected to dance rings around the others in the minefields of international politics, he was mistaken.
Gingrich made only one mistake, but potentially it was a big one: He declined to pander on immigration. Instead of parroting the draconian party line, he stated the obvious fact that we're not going to expel millions of illegal immigrants who have been in this country for years and become pillars of their communities.
You will recall that Rick Perry was leading in the polls when he, too, stumbled by saying reasonable things about immigration. Perry called immigration hard-liners heartless, while Gingrich encouraged the audience to be "humane."
Romney, as usual, took the right position to appeal to Republican voters. He said Gingrich was wrong because "amnesty is a magnet" that attracts more illegal immigrants.
Ron Paul had smart and important things to say about the Patriot Act, calling the law "unpatriotic because it undermines our liberty" and arguing that "you can still provide liberty without sacrificing our Bill of Rights." Gingrich, by contrast, argued that the Patriot Act might need to be strengthened. Asked which side of this debate she favored, Michele Bachmann said she was "with the American people." I thought Gingrich and Paul were citizens, but never mind.
Bachmann then pulled the pin on one of the more nonsensical rhetorical grenades that she regularly lobs at President Obama: that he "has essentially handed over our interrogation of terrorists to the ACLU."
The record shows that Obama does not coddle terrorist suspects with the niceties of liberal jurisprudence. Instead, he blows them to pieces with missiles fired by Predator drones. It's possible to disagree on whether the administration's program of targeted assassination is wise or effective, but no one can claim it's soft.
Rick Santorum argued that we should be profiling Muslims for extra scrutiny at airports and sparing travelers who are deemed to present lower risk. Herman Cain said he favors a policy of "targeted identification" of potential terrorists, a concept so subtle that it defied Cain's further attempts at explanation.
Romney got it right again, pledging "to protect the life, liberty and property of American citizens and defend them from foes domestic and foreign" without being specific about how this would be accomplished.
Perry had an interesting night. He stood by his promise not to send "one penny, period," of U.S. aid to Pakistan until officials of that nation demonstrate "that they have America's best interests in mind." Bachmann called this position "highly naive," pointing out that Pakistan is "too nuclear to fail."
But Perry was undeterred. He went on to show a breathtaking lack of understanding of what's happening in that part of the world, at one point saying that "we've got Afghanistan and India working in concert right now to leverage Pakistan." That one sentence succinctly captures Pakistani officials' deepest fear -- being sandwiched by two enemies -- and why they continue to support Taliban-affiliated militant groups that attack U.S. and Afghan forces.
Go home, Governor. Please.
Jon Huntsman had his best performance of the many debates held thus far, laying out a vision of U.S. foreign policy that was informed, nuanced and reflective of the real world rather than the make-believe world in which the campaign is taking place. Maybe he'll be the next candidate to see a meteoric rise and fall in his poll numbers. Pretty soon, though, we're going to run out of meteors.
Which leaves Romney still waiting for his party to show the love. He knows the issues. He says all the right things. So why do Republicans keep getting infatuated with these fire-breathing suitors who always, in the end, break the GOP's heart?
Maybe voters just wonder about a guy who's willing to tailor everything to please his audience. Even his name.
Eugene Robinson is an associate editor and columnist for The Washington Post. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/eugenerobinson.