It is looking increasingly likely that Mitt Romney is consolidating his position as the front runner and the likely nominee of the Republican side. And while he was the central focus of last night's debate with both the Fox News and Wall Street Journal panel and Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum focusing on him, my sense is that he managed to escape unscathed notwithstanding the fact that virtually all of the tweets were negative, particularly with regard to his record at Bain Capital and especially his failure to release his income tax.
That notwithstanding, the conservative opposition to Romney did not coalesce around any candidate or ideas and it is my clear sense that he remains the front runner after the feisty and at times extremely exciting Fox News/Wall Street Journal debate.
Despite the fact that he has only won the Iowa caucuses by 8 votes and in New Hampshire more than 60% of Republican primary voters voted for somebody other than the former Massachusetts governor, there is a clear sense emboldened by yesterday's announcement of Jon Huntsman's withdrawal from the race, that Romney ultimately will be the Republican nominee.
Romney got a huge break this week when his opponents on the Republican side largely agreed to drop the issue of Bain Capital and Romney's performance there as an issue in the primaries.
To be sure, no one was questioning free market capitalism and how it operates. But Romney and his advisors were able to turn the attacks into a questioning of capitalism by seemingly conservative Republicans and into a series of attacks on a film made by Newt Gingrich's Super PAC, which contained numerous inaccuracies-- inaccuracies that Gingrich has asked his Super PAC to fix but as of yet have yet to be corrected.
But not withstanding the pushback on the issue, it is a huge question for the general election.
It is a question for the general election because the issue of whether Romney was a jobs creator or a jobs killer remains unclear.
It is an issue for the general election because swing voters, in particular, if it can be shown that Romney did indeed close down a number of businesses, take out record dividends through leverage, and saw at least four businesses and a large percentage of jobs-- approaching 1 in 5 at the businesses he took over-- ultimately disappear, whether it was before, during, or after his tenure at Bain Capital.
Put another way, as one of my associates has said, Romney is unlikely to get off scot free in a campaign where his claim to fame is that he flipped companies and then flip-flopped on the issues moving from a Massachusetts moderate, as Newt Gingrich is goading, with liberal positions on social issues like guns, abortion and health care, to a more traditional Republican, sympathetic to the Tea Party.
In practical political terms, the Romney campaign provides the unique narrative to the Obama campaign, who despite their lack of a record of accomplishment on the economy, now have a narrative. And that narrative is that the economy is now slowly improving, they are standing up for working people versus the rich and powerful, read: the 1%, read: Mitt Romney. And that they have been stymied at every juncture in trying to develop policies for the 99% by an intransigent Republican Congress.
To be sure, that in and of itself is not a winning argument.
With vast majorities of Americans dissatisfied with Obama's economic policies and feeling the country is heading in the wrong direction, there is a very clear sense that America is off on the wrong track.
What the Obama campaign will do is make the argument that Romney is simply not the answer. They will argue that by not having created the 100,000 jobs he said he did, Romney has exaggerated, or even worse, did not tell the truth.
They will argue that his performance at Bain Capital represents not pure free market capitalism, but financial manipulation. And that ultimately, Romney is on the side of the wealthy and the powerful, supporting policies that are inimical to working people.
And what's worse, they will say, you can't trust him to stand for anything. His flip-flops on the issues are so substantial that you really don't know what he stands for, and who he really is.
What Obama will try to do with all of this is to fight Romney to a draw, with independent swing voters in the middle and in the Midwest and Southwest.
Put another way, Obama's theory is that if they can fight to an effective draw with voters in the center through these kind of attacks, they will be able to mobilize their vote-- whether it be from liberals, young people, blacks or Hispanics-- in a way that gives them a narrow victory.
It is not a great strategy, but at least it is a strategy.
Romney's strategy at this point will be the one he articulated last Tuesday night when he won the New Hampshire primary. That he is for free markets, he is against regulation and that he is for opening up a society that President Obama has mismanaged.
Again, in a time of massive dissatisfaction with the established order and distrust of Washington, it is a reasonable strategy.
The big change now is that the president has, for the first time, developed a counter that, however cynical it may be, could well counter Romney's attacks.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist and Fox News contributor. His most recent book is "Mad as Hell: How the Tea Party Movement is Fundamentally Remaking Our Two-Party System" published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins.