It was a simple personal question, not Newt Gingrich, that exposed Mitt Romney's most glaring weakness during Monday night's debate.
Romney, who had shown the confidence of a veteran prosecutor when he interrogated Gingrich's rocky congressional tenure earlier in the debate, struggled to answer an open-ended query near the debate's end. Moderator Brian Williams, calling the election a battle for "the soul" of the GOP, asked the ex-Bay State governor what he had done to further the conservative movement.
Romney didn't offer a compelling answer.
"Well, number one, I've raised a family," he said. "And I've -- I've -- with my wife, we've raised five wonderful sons, and we have 16 wonderful grandkids."
He went on to reference his private sector background and time gubernatorial experience, but the reference to his family stuck. Romney had a chance to brandish his conservative bona fides, and instead of gave Republicans a somewhat nonsensical response about his number of children. It's not clear how raising a family ties to contributing to the Republican Party.
Compare it to the response from Gingrich. The onetime GOP leader immediately talked about helping conservative godfather Barry Goldwater's campaign in 1964 and later Ronald Reagan's, indicative of a candidate who knows how to prove he's an authentic part of the movement.
Romney's answer highlights his inability to connect to many rank-and-file members of the conservative movement, a problem that's continued to haunt him after his stunning defeat in South Carolina last week. He's skilled at detailing the X's and O's of policy, but his efforts to prove he's a rock-ribbed conservative often come up short.
The Gingrich campaign certainly reveled in his answer.
Minutes after the debate ended, it sent an e-mail headlined "Mitt Romney's Top Conservative Achievements."