Is this what a nominee looks like?
Monday night's Fox News/Twitter debate showcased Mitt Romney on the brink of victory; a frontrunner who has cleared one more hurdle on his way to a win in South Carolina--and most likely the GOP nomination.
But that's not to say he was all that good.
In fact, Romney had one of his tougher nights in recent memory. Rick Santorum knocked him off balance. He got booed by Ron Paul supporters. And he even managed to stage a brand new awkward hunting-related moment.
With the field winnowed down to just five, Romney's opponents were able to devote a smaller portion of their designated airtime talking about themselves--and they graciously opted to share their extra minutes by tossing some questions of their own at the often-flustered frontrunner. The resulting exchanges weren't race-upending--but they reminded Republicans once again that even the most ostensibly "electable" candidate in the field has his fair share of weaknesses.
The trouble for Romney began early in the evening when Santorum challenged him on a pro-Romney Super PAC ad running in South Carolina that attacks the former Pennsylvania Senator for supporting voting rights for felons.
"I would ask Governor Romney, do you believe felons who have served their time, who have exhausted their parole and probation, should they be given the right to vote?" Santorum asked him.
Romney started in with his standard denial of responsibility for Super PACs supporting him, but Santorum wouldn't have any of it.
"Answer the question first," he demanded. The crowd cheered, Romney offered his signature fake laugh--and then he got testy.
"We've got plenty of time," Romney insisted. "I'll do it in the order I want to do."
The exchange didn't get any better for him from there. Facing further pressure from Santorum, Romney finally offered his view that violent felons should have their voting rights permanently revoked, only to have his opponent point out that when he was Governor, Massachusetts had very liberal laws regarding criminal voting rights.
After the debate, Romney's campaign tried to spin the moment as a win for Romney. "Santorum was on the left of the issue, while Governor Romney was on the right, pun intended," said campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
But anyone watching the debate knew that it wasn't the substance of the exchange that hurt Romney; it was the fact that he had been so easily ruffled. The body language he impulsively reverts to when he's bothered by an attack--sharp, quick hand gestures, rapid-fire blinking, and that well-documented fake laugh--doesn't sit well with viewers. And if Rick Santorum is able to bring him to this point in a few short minutes, what will he look like when he's standing at a podium next to President Obama?
Romney had other awkward moments Monday night as well. In a rare kind word for the incumbent president, he said if he were in Obama's shoes, he also would have signed the National Defense Authorization Act--a law civil liberties advocates worry will empower the president to detain just about anyone. But when Romney said he wasn't particularly concerned about Obama abusing his power in this area, he fielded loud boos from the crowd--most likely from Ron Paul's Libertarian supporters.
Finally, toward the end of the night, Romney was asked if he'd been hunting since 2007, when he attracted scorn for saying he was a lifelong hunter of "small varmints"--only to later be revealed as an amateur who had only been a couple of times.
This time, Romney decided to take a more straightforward tack, admitting, "I'm not the great hunter." But he did say he'd been elk hunting recently, and expressed his enjoyment of the pastime in a uniquely Romney-esque way: "I guess I enjoy the sport, and when I get invited I'm delighted to be able to go hunting."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
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