Opinion: In Last Night's Debate, Mitt Show Kills Hermentum, Shuts Down Perry

Herman Cain and Mitt Romney greet each other at the GOP debate.

He's been accused of being too moderate for a Republican primary. His healthcare plan has haunted him among conservative voters. He's changed positions on his road from Massachusetts Governor to right-wing seducer. His Mormon faith has hurt him among evangelicals.

From Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry to Chris Christie and most recently Herman Cain, the GOP has been searching for the anti-Romney. But the Mitt won't quit.

In last night's Republican Debate, which we all anticipated would shine a bright light on Cain - the latest to surge in the ABR (Anyone But Romney) race - Romney took center stage. The debate opened with 9-9-9 and Cain had his turn at the unfortunate end of the Republican firing squad. But after he got lost in a head-scratching fruit metaphor, and after Romney won New Hampshire by pointing out Cain's plan would instate a sales tax in a state that doesn't have one, there was no more Hermentum.

It was the Mitt show. In part, Romney for once seemed to stop shuffling, avoiding and flipping - and, in his own way, stood his ground.

As others attacked him on healthcare, he stood by his work in Massachusetts. It's hard to find fault with a man proud to have insured more of his citizens. Sure, he draws false distinctions between his plan and the president's, but he was unequivocal: He gave the people of Massachusetts something they wanted, which addressed a problem and of which they approved.

As others chortled on about faith - Gingrich asked how he could support anyone who doesn't pray - Romney delivered the message that the much-coveted independent voters longed for: Choosing your president based on religion is not what this country is about. He did it without denying the centrality of faith and values, but still sounded a note so fundamentally American that even liberals may have cheered.

And as others targeted him from all sides, interrupted him, accused him of all manner of anti-conservative crime, he looked strong and calm. At the Drinking Liberally watch party, his was the only voice that seemed to silence the boisterous crowd. Perry looked like a bully trying to pick a fight, surprised when someone punched back.

Bachmann, raising her hand, looked like the wanna-be teacher's pet. Gingrich played the role of the substitute teacher who uses his few minutes in front of classroom to deliver the Grand Lecture he'd been saving for years. Ron Paul - pointing out the other candidates' double-standards of "No foreign aid!" and "Except to Israel," and "Don't negotiate!" and "Except how Reagan did!" - is that kid whose mix of intelligence and awkwardness seems to be waging a war within him that makes him uncomfortable and ostracized.

Cain was committed to solving a math problem the wrong way and, so caught up on that one puzzle, couldn't really participate in the rest of the class discussion. And Santorum is the ex-jock whose season long ago ended but keeps remembering back when he used to be a winner.

Mitt Romney weathered their attacks, did his best to look presidential, and spoke to and beyond the audience in that hall. This was not the Romney of past debates who hid from his past, got irritated at his opponents and groped hopelessly for a Reagenesque message. Maybe he realizes now that he's a frontrunner not by fiat but by resilience. Maybe he has the joy not of coming in second four years ago, but of actually holding his ground against rivals this time around.

Whatever the cause, it's as though someone reminded Romney that he's the rich kid who, in the end, will buy his way to the top of the class if he needs to. That certainty gave him a genuine confidence - which, if he can hold onto, will carry him against whomever his naysayers prop up next…and make him a rival the Democrats can't ignore.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."