Rick Perry has cost Mitt Romney his lead in the polls but made him a
better candidate and, potentially, a more formidable nominee.
The former Massachusetts governor, long disparaged as a fragile
front-runner for the nomination, is showing a spark that seemed elusive
when he topped the national polls. He delivered his second confident
debate performance against Perry on Monday, raising more questions about
the Texas governor's position on Social Security even as Perry tried to
close out the discussion by vowing the benefits were "slam-dunk
guaranteed'' for current recipients.
In the most pivotal moment of the debate, Romney laid a trap for
Perry by asking if he was going to "retreat'' from the idea that Social
Security is an unconstitutional federal program that should be turned
over to the states.
It was as if Romney had waved a red flag in front of the typically
hard-charging Perry, who balked instead of lunging forward. First he
mocked the idea that the New Deal was beyond reproach, but then he said,
"Obviously we're not going to take away'' such an institution. "I think
we ought to have a conversation,'' Perry said.
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Romney interrupted with perhaps his best line of the night. "We're
having that right now, governor. We're running for president.''
Going head-to-head with his swaggering, cowboy-boot wearing rival,
Romney showed the political chops that have frequently been lacking
during his many years on the presidential campaign trail. Voting won't
begin for months in the Republican contest. so there's plenty of time
for the dynamic to shift again, but Romney showed Monday night that his
rival's sudden surge hasn't left him on the ropes.
Before Perry entered the race last month, Romney had shied from
engaging with his Republican rivals, choosing to stay above the fray.
Perry's surge in the polls made it impossible for him to continue that
strategy. Polls show Perry drawing support not just in the demographics
he was expected to win--evangelicals and tea party adherents--but among
groups that had been considered Romney's sweet spot: college-educated
suburbanites. And just as Hillary Rodham Clinton forced Barack Obama to
become a better candidate in their drawn-out battle for the Democratic
nomination in 2008, Perry seems to be helping Romney to find his
For years now, Romney has been explaining which side he was on. Is he
for abortion or against it? Is he for the individual mandate in health
insurance or against it? Even Romney himself didn't seem sure. The new
Romney is willing to displease: Before a tea party audience at the
debate, he defended the existence of the Federal Reserve. In recent
months, he acknowledged climate change and refused to sign an
antiabortion pledge that he said went too far.
Those are risks suddenly worth taking because the makeup of the
Republican field is working in Romney's favor. While his leading rivals
scramble to win the GOP conservative activists, he can lay claim to the
centrist wing of the party, with little real competition now that Tim
Pawlenty has dropped out of the race (and, on Monday, endorsed Romney).
The only other potential contender for that constituency, Jon Huntsman,
is flailing. His poll numbers are low and on Monday, he took on the role
of an unwelcome guest at a party of conservatives, cracking awkward
jokes about Kurt Cobain and Perry's "treasonous" position on border
Perry, on the other hand, faces a slew of rivals competing for the
movement conservatives in the Republican Party. In sharp contrast to
Huntsman's feckless swipes against Romney, Perry's competitors delivered
withering attacks on his record in Texas. Unlike previous debates when
he was the prime target, Romney could sit back while his rivals did
their best to undercut Perry's conservative base.
The sharpest criticism came from Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum,
who excoriated Perry's 2007 decision requiring vaccinations for
sixth-grade girls against a cervical cancer-causing virus. The Minnesota
congresswoman, referencing her three daughters, showed the passion that
fueled her summertime surge in the polls but was absent in the last
"To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a
government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong,"
she said. "That should never be done. It's a violation of a liberty
Santorum piled on. Perry may have admitting that he made a "mistake''
in how he executed the program but he was still defending its merits,
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"This is big government run amok," Santorum said. "It is bad policy, and it should not have been done."
While Santorum and Bachmann savaged Perry's credentials as a social
conservative, Ron Paul questioned his legitimacy as a fiscal hawk. The
Texas congressman, who has delighted in tangling with Perry in
consecutive debates, blasted the governor's record on spending and
taxes. That's sensitive terrain for Perry, who has made his job-creation
record in Texas the centerpiece of his campaign.
"I'm a taxpayer there -- my taxes have gone up," Paul quipped. So has
the state's debt, he added. And in one of the debate's more memorable
lines, he slyly added, "I don't want to offend the governor because he
might raise my taxes or something."
After Monday's debate in Tampa on Monday and last week's showdown at
the Reagan Presidential Library, the distinctions between the two
leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have come
into sharp focus. Perry is the candidate who wants to "make Washington
D.C. as inconsequential in your life as I can.'' Romney is the candidate
for people who "think the country needs a turnaround.''
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Perry played the passionate ideological warrior. President Barack
Obama's economic stimulus program "created zero jobs.'' The Texas
governor doubled down on his characterization of Federal Reserve
Chairman Ben Bernanke as "treasonous,'' adding, "I think that is a very
clear statement of fact.''
Romney, by contrast, played the cool corporate executive, appealing
to an audience outside the debate hall by raising questions about
Perry's electability. Perry's use of the term "Ponzi scheme'' to
describe Social Security "over the top and unnecessary and I think
frightful to people," he said.
Pawlenty's endorsement of Romney on Monday signaled how nervous Perry
makes the Republican establishment. And even anti-establishment
Republicans like Mike Huckabee are raising questions about his viability
in a general election.
"Rick likes to come across as the straight-shootin,' blunt talking
guy and that works very well in Texas and it will work very well in what
I call the hardcore center of the Republican primary,'' Huckabee told
conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham. "But when you have to
branch out and get to those younger voters and general election voters,
I'm not sure how it's going to play out."