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.
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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.
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 audience.
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 security.
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.
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