FIELDS: Republicans try out their Mitt

Front-runner transcends the gaffe

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Mitt Romney is learning what candidates before him learned. Small mistakes count, but usually not for much. But big ones can put a man down for the count. Right now his “$10,000 bet” seems insignificant. His pleasure taken in “firing” greedy incompetents, taken out of context and exaggerated by opponents who know better, is slightly more damaging, but the fair-minded (as most Americans are) understand what he meant.

It’s unlikely that a trip of the tongue will trip up the leader of the pack. Mr. Romney’s rhetoric has been reliably steady, and the remark did not hurt him in New Hampshire. If it doesn’t cripple him in South Carolina, he could wrap up the nomination in Florida 10 days later. If he doesn’t have what George Bush the elder called “the Big Mo,” he’s got “the ongoing Mo.”

Mr. Romney has carefully cultivated the perception that he would be a steady and expansive leader with a consistent vision for America. While the emphasis at this stage has been mainly on domestic policy, the Romney ace is the perception that he would restore dignity and depth to American leadership in the world.

The particulars of foreign policy are rarely a dominant theme of a presidential campaign except in time of war, and foreign policy didn’t seem to count for much in Iowa or New Hampshire, but issues of “war and peace” will be nagging at the minds of many voters after they’re satisfied the man they like can fix the economy. President Obama so far has had no steady hand in his foreign policy.

Ron Paul, the naive isolationist, isolates himself with his fanciful notions about the dangerous world about him, offering only a strategy of hoping for the best and counting on something good to turn up. The young love him because they have neither the knowledge or sense of history. They don’t like war (who does?), but Ron Paul underestimates the enemy, especially in Iran. He dismisses as unimportant the foolish risk of dealing from a position of weakness.

Barack Obama was similarly naive in 2008, saying how willing he would be to sit down and talk with the leaders of Iran. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta now insists Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon, despite the conclusion of the International Atomic Energy Agency that “Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

The other Republican candidates offered only big talk in the substantive debate on foreign policy in November. Rick Perry announced that he would start at zero in calculating how much foreign aid to send to everyone, including Israel. His wise men spent the rest of the week backpedaling, trying to limit damage, but it was another example of Mr. Perry’s inexperience on a national stage about an international issue.

Jon Huntsman Jr. has direct foreign policy experience as the ambassador to China. But like all diplomats, he’s only comfortable strolling softly carrying a little stick. He supports Mr. Obama’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. This contrasts starkly with Mitt Romney’s warning that “this is not the time for America to cut and run.”

No one can doubt Newt Gingrich’s grasp of foreign policy and the strength of his hawkish views, but questions abound about his temperament. Rick Santorum has foreign policy smarts - he served on the Senate Armed Services Committee for eight years and wrote the legislation sanctioning Syria. He supports the opponents of the Iranian regime. But his star dimmed in New Hampshire after glowing briefly in Iowa.

This leaves Mitt Romney. A plurality of New Hampshire voters appeared to choose him because they concluded he has the best shot to beat Mr. Obama in November. In the months ahead, the public focus will return to terrorism. The pretrial proceedings at Guantanamo against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the evil mind behind the Sept. 11 attack on America, may begin as early as March. This will be the needed reminder that terrorists are not sleeping and neither should we be. The proceedings against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed will remind of the importance of Guantanamo, which Mr. Obama once foolishly promised to close.

In his victory speech in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney accused Mr. Obama of failing to understand the need for overwhelming American military superiority in a world populated by a lot of bad guys, and vowed that he would “insist on a military so powerful no one would think of challenging it.” That hasn’t been the focus of attention in the primary season, but you can bet it will be before the leaves fly in November.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.

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