Rick Perry battled a withering barrage of attacks in his first debate as a presidential candidate Wednesday night, at times stumbling in the face of harsh criticism – and difficult questioning – at the POLITICO/NBC debate.
But Perry proved himself to be an aggressive, often caustic debater, waiting only a few moments to go on the attack against his top rival, Mitt Romney, for his jobs record as governor of Massachusetts.
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Perry also assailed Romney over the issue of health care, blasting the one-time GOP frontrunner for signing a universal health care law that included a requirement that individuals purchase health insurance.
Romney – who has been in well over a dozen presidential debates, dating back to his first White House run in 2007 – didn’t budge, pushing back on Perry’s claims one by one.
“George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor,” Romney said, arguing that Texas businesses have benefited from conditions – such as the absence of a state income tax – that Perry did not create.
The two top Republican candidates shared the stage with half a dozen others: Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich.
Those candidates struggled to break into the conversation, though, except when attempting to attack one of the two frontrunners.
For all their sharp jabs, it’s not clear how much Perry and Romney actually changed the dynamic of their fight for first place.
The Texas governor led Romney by a more than two-to-one margin in a POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll this week – a commanding advantage for a candidate in the race for only a few weeks.
But at Wednesday night’s debate at the Reagan Library, Perry did little to allay concerns that his record in Texas and his hard-line conservative positions could be obstacles in a presidential race.
Asked to address the fact that nearly a quarter of Texans lack health insurance, Perry answered by pivoting to an attack on the Massachusetts law. Asked to identify a climate scientist who backs his view that global warming is a hoax, Perry did not come up with a single name.
When the moderators asked Perry about a campaign speech in which he decried “military adventurism,” Perry declined to name a recent conflict that he’d describe in those terms, insisting his speech was “philosophical.”
Perry spokesman Mark Miner told reporters at the Reagan Library that his candidate had clearly been the main target in the debate, and that he’d weathered an assault from all sides.
And in what may have been the most consequential moment of the evening, Perry staked out a provocative stance on Social Security that his opponents believe will haunt him throughout the race.
“It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years today you’re paying into a program that’s going to be there,” Perry said. “Anybody that’s for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it’s not right.”
Perry refused to back away from that statement, despite recent criticism from from Republican super-strategist Karl Rove that such language could be politically “toxic.”
“Karl has been over the top for a long time in some of his remarks,” Perry said, shrugging: “Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country.”
Romney took the opportunity to pounce on Perry’s stance, which is likely to alarm older voters who play a powerful role in partisan primaries – especially in the pivotal early state of Florida.
Romney adviser Stuart Stevens exulted over what he called a politically suicidal moment by Perry, emailing to POLITICO: “He has lost. No federal candidate has ever won on the Perry program to kill Social Security. Never has. Never will.”
But this much is already clear: If Perry was hoping to deliver a crushing blow against Romney tonight, he did not succeed.
Among the other candidates, Michele Bachmann may have fallen most short of what she needed to achieve in the debate.
But in the POLITICO/NBC debate, Bachmann largely stuck to the same script she’s used throughout the entire campaign, doing little to show she’s prepared to open a second act.
She was just one of three candidates – along with Ron Paul and Rick Santorum – who ganged up on Perry over his attempt to issue an executive order mandating the HPV vaccine for sixth-grade girls.
Huntsman, too, struggled to stand out at a critical moment for his campaign. After spending several weeks criticizing the Republican Party for drifting away from the political center, Huntsman declined to comment on remarks from his chief strategist characterizing the GOP as a “bunch of cranks.”
He stood by his view that Republicans are at risk of being perceived as “anti-science” due to other candidates’ views on global warming. Said Huntsman: “When we make comments that don’t reflect the reality of the situation, we turn people off.”
More than ever, it appears Huntsman is counting on the independent voters he is seeking in the early states where they can cast votes in the GOP primary.
For the second consecutive debate, Newt Gingrich earned his biggest moment in the spotlight by attacking the press, accusing the moderators of attempting to pit Republicans against each other over the issue of health care.
“You’d like to puff this up into some giant thing,” Gingrich said, because “whoever the nominee is, we are all for defeating Barack Obama.”