ORLANDO – For months, the Republican race seemed wildly unpredictable. Potential candidates came and went. Mitt Romney hovered as the most fragile of front-runners. Michele Bachmann surged then crashed, overshadowed by Rick Perry.
Three nationally televised debates in 16 days have gone a long way toward clarifying the choices and issues facing Republican voters. Social Security and immigration entered the debate and don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Romney has grown taller, while Perry has wavered under attack.
At the same time that the debates held a magnifying mirror to the Republican field, the polls and economic reports showed an increasingly vulnerable Democratic incumbent.
“I hope one of us gets the White House. I think we will, because I think the president has failed,’’ Romney said in Thursday’s Fox News debate, striking the pose of the Republican party’s standard-bearer. “I think we all have different ideas on different issues. One thing for sure, we all agree President Obama needs to be former President Obama, and we’re going to make that happen.’’
Romney has accomplished a number of things in the September debates. By steering clear of the bombastic tone adopted by rivals jockeying for the tea party vote, the former Massachusetts governor has demonstrated his potential appeal in a general election. On Thursday, he preferred to cast Obama as a “big-spending liberal’’ over “socialist.’’ He has also shown he can go toe to toe with the brash governor of Texas, throwing clean punches at his positions on Social Security and immigration. On Thursday night, he twice dismissed Perry’s attacks matter-of-factly, saying “Nice try.’’
In contrast, Perry’s lackluster performances in the string of debates have raised questions about his potential strength in a general election.
Perry has yet to explain his sweeping criticism of Social Security as a “failure’’ and a “Ponzi scheme’’ in way that would reassure current recipients that he would not do away with their benefits while making a compelling case for reform. His economic record in Texas is one of his biggest assets, but until he articulates a national vision, his constant references to his home state could come across as parochial. He also flubbed what seemed like a rehearsed statement on Romney’s flip-flops on abortion and other issues. If Perry can’t continue the flip-flopping attack that was so effective against Romney in 2008, how can he defeat a sitting president?
Still, Perry rebounded on Thursday on a couple issues that dogged his first two appearances, suggesting that he may only need some more time to hit his stride.
Defending his proposal to vaccinate schoolgirls against a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer, Perry personalized the issue. “I got lobbied on this issue. I got lobbied by a 31-year-old young lady who had stage 4 cervical cancer,’’ he said. “I spent a lot of time with her.’’
Perry also offered a new take on his support for a law allowing the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition at Texas schools. “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart,’’ he said.
The audience still booed.
Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor once seen as a potential threat to Romney, failed to establish himself as a force to be reckoned with in the September debates. After showing some confidence and poise in the first one, he was awkward in the last two. His attempt on Thursday night to compare Perry and Romney to two candidates who faded in 2008 – Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson – fell flat.
The debates also exposed Bachmann’s shortcomings. She hit Perry hard on the vaccination, but later lost some credibility by suggesting it could cause mental retardation. She refused to retreat from that position on Thursday.
Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul have had sporadic success at taking center stage in the debates. But their smaller campaign accounts are likely to limit them to playing minor roles in the Republican race.