Can Romney Win by Embracing his Mormon Masculinity?

I’ll admit it: I was nervous. I thought last night’s debate would feature a machismo standoff between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, and that the bow-legged Texas governor would inevitably prevail.  After all, as I’ve argued before, Mormon men do masculinity differently than their non-Mormon rivals.

And last night, that difference (as well as as some clear gaps in Rick Perry’s preparation) worked to Romney’s favor.

Perry came out of the gates strong, then got bogged down in sexually transmitted disease (his executive order to vaccinate girls against HPV), garbled intellectual history (on science), threw some wild punches (not backing down on calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme”), compared himself to a “piñata,” and then stumbled to the finish—again raising questions of electability in a general contest.

Romney, by comparison, proved well-prepared to stay (more or less) on message and put Perry on the defensive.

But perhaps the most important moments for Romney (and his fellow Mormon candidate Jon Huntsman) were those when they managed to dignify a debate that at times veered towards demagoguery: witness the cheers and whistles from the Ronald Reagan library crowd when NBC’s Brian Williams asked Perry about the 234 Texas inmates (including men convicted as juveniles) executed on his watch.

For Huntsman, one of those moments came when he observed that the post-9/11 TSA apparatus had made us more afraid as a nation. Another came when he stopped the runaway rhetorical train on immigration to observe that even illegal immigrants were “human beings” and that both they and the nation deserved a more “optimistic” and “hopeful” approach to immigration.

For Romney, a key moment came when he tried to steer the debate out of its Ron-Paul-led detour into the world of the human papilloma virus and back into the jobs crisis. Another came when he modestly suggested that those who vociferously support the troops should put their money where their mouths are. That’s right, everyone: freedom isn’t free. We’re all paying the tax bills for the Republican-declared wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Last night, it was the two LDS candidates on stage who managed to appear the most reasonable. That’s a fascinating new public image for Mormon conservatism in the post-Glenn-Beck era.

And it appears that Romney outlasted the more showy and muscular Perry by embracing his Mormon masculinity in all its mild-mannered, wonky, safe, managerial glory.