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Mitt Romney

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during an economic roundtable discussion at the Treynor State Bank in Treynor, Iowa, on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011. (JACOB HANNAH/Lincoln Journal Star)

JACOB HANNAH / Lincoln Journal Star

Some random impressions from sitting in on last week's Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas:

It was a Romney crowd at The Venetian, immediately demonstrated by the reception each candidate received in the introductions.

Lots of twists and turns lie ahead on the road to the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, but there seemed to be an inevitability to Mitt Romney's eventual nomination hanging in the air in Nevada. And you had the feeling that Romney senses it.

Romney was smooth, but Herman Cain was far more engaging, although, shall we say, more than a little vague. He sometimes seems to make it up as he plunges ahead.

Rick Perry was all Texas. 

Newt Gingrich seemed to assume the role of wise man, appearing at times to look down with amusement on his less informed and less gifted colleagues.

Gingrich seemed to be sort of a benign version of the Phantom of the Opera, who was camped out a long, long, long way down the hall beyond the bustling casino at the spacious resort hotel. But Gingrich was merciful; he dropped no chandeliers on his opponents.

Meanwhile, Ron Paul contentedly did his own thing. While his opponents may filter and weigh what they're about to say, Paul just says what he thinks.

Rounding out the panel of debate contestants, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum labored to gain attention.

"Anderson! Anderson!" was Bachmann's call, directed at CNN anchor personality Anderson Cooper, who was refereeing -- uh, moderating -- the event.

Of course, the hand on the shoulder was the biggest moment of drama during a two-hour debate that moved surprisingly swiftly.

When Romney placed his hand on Perry in the midst of an argument that was more about interruption than debate, there was tense anticipation as each eyed the other, and you knew one was thinking cowboy and the other was glaring aristocrat.

But the moment passed without incident.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night occurred when President Barack Obama showed up in a scene-setting opening video presentation without attracting a single boo from the highly partisan Republican audience. Western manners, perhaps. More likely, discipline.

Wayne Newton, Las Vegas icon, was the biggest celebrity in the audience. And, even in that role, he was the consummate performer, jumping to his feet to smile and shake hands with people as they came over to his seat to pose for cellphone photos with him before the debate began.

All in all, it was a lively, even entertaining event.

In 2008, you kind of had a feeling that the core of the party didn't really want John McCain, but Republicans nominated him. 

And you kind of have a feeling now that the core of the party isn't loving Romney much, and yet he is likely to be the GOP's 2012 choice.

Focused on Iowa

Speaking of Romney, he was in a little Iowa town two days later making his case in a state whose conservatives usually dominate the first-in-the-nation Republican presidential caucuses, which will be held on Jan. 3. 

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Watching him perform during an economic roundtable discussion in the basement of the Treynor State Bank, you could see a man who is confident, disciplined and informed.

No surprise there.  We've all spotted those traits before.

What was more noticeable was just how focused and intense he can be, locking his eyes and attention on whomever was speaking and carefully listening. Connected for that moment.

Romney's message, of course, is the economy, and he is the private-sector messenger. And, he says, he's a leader, prepared, competent and equipped.

If he's the Republican nominee, debates with Obama will be worth watching. 

Finishing up

* Chuck Hagel and Bob Kerrey will participate in a Truman Presidential Library foreign policy event in Kansas City on Saturday.

Kerrey will be the moderator for a discussion on "presidential power abroad" from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. Hagel will be on the panel with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

* Deb Fischer's campaign team includes national fundraising, media and polling firms used by Mike Johanns, as well as by some other Nebraska Republican candidates.

* Looks like this first Big Ten Husker season is on the line Saturday in Lincoln.  

P.S. Morning football is ridiculous.

Reach Don Walton at 402-473-7248 or at dwalton@journalstar.com.

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