What presidential candidates say or don't say in televised debates can be very revealing about them. In Rick Perry's unfortunate case the other night, his inability to remember the third of three federal departments he would eliminate has him on a damage control campaign that could go on endlessly.
Making the rounds of the television news and talk shows from early morning to late night on the day after his infamous gaffe, Perry offered himself as more a good-natured clown than a wicked knave. It's hardly a proven formula for a political rebound.
But something else was said in the same debate by Mitt Romney that revealed an element in his difficult quest to be accepted by fellow Republicans as their strongest candidate to take on President Obama next year.
In an apparent effort to make himself sound more Republican than the other contenders, Mr. Romney declared that the Obama administration is "the most political presidency we have seen in modern history." It was his response to the Democrats' continuing accusations that he is a flip-flopper on a range of issues dear to conservative hearts -- the same complaint so often heard in his own GOP ranks.
Governor Romney's allegation was a strange one in light of the president's track record over the last three years. In fact, fellow Democrats have repeatedly berated their man in the White House for being too conciliatory toward the congressional Republicans who are so conspicuously stonewalling him.
Until recent weeks, when President Obama finally decided that political partisanship may be his best hope for re-election and stepped up his assault on the GOP's intransigence, he had been under heavy fire from his own party for turning the other cheek.
Mr. Romney's charge that Mr. Obama heads the most political White House in modern times was all the more absurd in terms of history. Its pages are forever blotted by the political crimes and antics of the Nixon years, from burglary and bribery to massive lying and high-level cover-up. That era ended with the first resignation in disgrace of a president of either party, close on the heels of the first resignation in disgrace of a vice president -- both Republicans.
Even in Mr. Obama's own party, his administration has been squeaky-clean compared to the Clinton years of major political contributors snoozing in the Lincoln bedroom, and to the LBJ era of political arm-twisting by the master from Texas. Governor Romney seems to think he can establish his Republican chops by casting the relatively inoffensive Obama gang as a bunch of latter-day Tammany ward heelers.
It all reflects the benign and buttoned-down former businessman's need to be taken within his own party as one of the boys. Instead, he continues to be seen and heard as an uncertain trumpet of the conservative social views that he now so tardily embraces. More than outdoing the other Republican hopefuls in painting Mr. Obama as historically partisan, Mr. Romney's best hope for the GOP nomination remains the resignation among the party faithful that in an uninspiring field, he is their own best hope in 2012.
Governor Perry's weird debate implosion, and the sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain that have forced him onto the defensive, may give the other Republicans an opportunity emerge as serious alternatives to a Romney who has yet to make the sale. And some wishful thinkers in the party still gaze skyward for some unnamed savior to fill the vacuum that the likes of New Jersey dreamboat Chris Christie declined to occupy.
So Mr. Romney in his fashion huffs and puffs against President Obama in hopes of sounding more like the dragon-slayer that he would like to be -- and that he hopes Republican voters will see him as, by the time they go to the polls in the early primary states in January.
But a presidential nomination given with neither enthusiasm for the nominee nor confidence that he can win is hardly an ideal way to enter the general election campaign. And that could be Mr. Obama's own best hope for survival as he faces reelection in a time of such discouraging economic conditions.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.