During the Republican presidential candidates' debate at Dartmouth College the other night, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was asked his choice for chairman of the Federal Reserve. Grinning, he replied: "I haven't chosen that person. I haven't even chosen a vice president. I'm not sure I'm the nominee yet."
But he clearly acted as though he were. A frequent target of the other hopefuls, the previously benign Mr. Romney dealt with them this time like the knowing adult in the roomful of snappish school kids.
At one point when his allegedly chief rival, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, attempted to break into a Romney answer, he looked at Mr. Perry across the table, firmly reminding him three times that "I'm still speaking," then continued with what he was saying. Mr. Perry, whose strategy supposedly dictated cutting Mr. Romney down to size, simply shut up.
As most of the other debaters spent time sniping at him and repeating the GOP consensus pitch for deficit reduction and no new taxes, Mr. Romney broadened his appeal beyond the conservative base that has been lukewarm toward him.
He contrasted himself with the others by expressing concern for the plight of middle-class Americans hit hardest by the sluggish economy, who also are President Barack Obama's best hope to right his own political fortunes in next year's election.
When the first debate question was what each contender would do to break the paralysis of partisanship in Washington, Mr. Perry called for greater energy independence, the expected response from the Texas champion of increased oil drilling. Part of Mr. Romney's answer was: "[W]e can't demand more from tax revenue from people, because that kills jobs and hurts working families. We have to help the middle class in this country."
Later, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich asked Mr. Romney why he would favor capital gains tax cuts for the middle class. The former governor shot back that "middle-income Americans have been the people who have been most hurt by the Obama economy." He added: "I'm not worried about rich people. They're doing just fine. The very poor have a safety net; they're taken care of. But the people in the middle, the hard-working Americans, are the people who need a break."
This answer was not likely to warm the hearts of the Republican congressional leaders, who firmly oppose Mr. Obama's efforts to end the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires and tack a 5.6 percent surcharge on them. But as the core GOP posture seems to be Anybody But Obama, the conservative quibbles with Mr. Romney are likely to fall away if his nomination appears in the offing.
At the same time, his gesture toward middle-class relief at the expense of the nation's fat cats who traditionally have declared the Republican Party their home may make Mr. Romney more acceptable to independent voters, who may well decide the outcome of the 2012 election.
In a climate of increasing public discussion of the tax-burden inequality between the rich and the middle class, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 64 percent of those surveyed said it was "a good idea" to raise taxes on the rich. Under these circumstances, Mr. Romney's embrace of the plight of the middle class may not be the best magnet for votes in the Republican primaries. But if he is the GOP nominee, it would probably help him in the general election.
The fact that Mr. Romney would even express concern about the middle class in a Republican debate is a measure of his campaign's growing confidence that he is surviving Mr. Perry's best efforts to challenge his front-runner status. And recent polls showing long shot Herman Cain overtaking him have resulted in greater scrutiny of the former pizza executive's 9-9-9 plan for individual, corporate and sales taxes, which would raise the middle-class tax burden.
The major barrier to Mr. Romney's nomination now may be the $17 million raised by Mr. Perry in the last quarter of reporting, which can buy a host of television ads against the man from Massachusetts. However, Mr. Perry may have to spend much of it answering pesky questions about some of his positions troubling to Republicans as well as to the general public.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.