Rick Perry’s first debate as a Republican presidential candidate brought out the best and worst of the Texas governor as he seeks to make the leap from brash big-state executive to national party standard-bearer.
He deflected uncomfortable questions about national economic disparities, the high percentage of Texans without health insurance, and his sharp criticism of the New Deal and climate change. At these moments, he looked the part of the Republican front-runner.
But Perry let his Texas swagger get the best of him at times when he needed to project the gravitas demanded of a White House aspirant. He refused to back off his description of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.’’ He suggested President Obama was either clueless or an “abject liar’’ when he said the border with Mexico was safer than ever.
At the risk of looking petty, the newly-minted national front-runner spat at former White House adviser Karl Rove and took the bait when longshot rival Ron Paul accused him of backing former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health care agenda. In both cases, it seemed as if Perry was trying to use a nationally televised debate to settle old feuds in his home state.
In contrast, his more experienced rival on the national stage, Mitt Romney, delivered a far more even, polished performance in the debate sponsored by NBC News and Politico. If the polls show Perry knocking him off his front-runner’s perch, Romney didn’t let it show.
Without grandstanding, Romney answered the biggest question looming over the debate: Would he abandon his strategy of staying above the fray and go after Perry?
Yes. But with precision, so as not to appear desperate.
"Governor… you say that by any measure, Social Security is a failure," Romney said, seizing on one of the most controversial sections of Perry’s recent book, Fed Up. "You can't say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security.... Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security."
Romney's calculated attack on Social Security suggests that he sees that issue as the best entryway to knee-capping the more conservative Texan and pitching himself as the more reasonable alternative. That was the moment of the debate when Romney seemed to a get a leg up on Perry, and it was as sharp-elbowed as he got the whole night.
Earlier, Romney joked that Perry taking credit for his state’s vast natural resources and longstanding lack of a personal income tax -- factors that have fostered job growth in Texas -- would be "like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet." That got a laugh from the audience. And after other candidates had piled on one of the most obvious vulnerabilities on Perry’s record -- his unsuccessful crusade to vaccinate sixth-grade girls against a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer -- Romney looked statesmanlike by letting him off the hook.
"We’ve each taken a mulligan," said the former governor of Massachusetts, slyly lumping his controversial Massachusetts health care program with one of Perry’s biggest blunders.
Perhaps most importantly, Romney doggedly stuck to the central message of his campaign: that as a successful businessman, he is best equipped to expose Obama’s economic failings and create prosperity.
As for Perry, when he was grilled about his gubernatorial record by the debate moderators and his opponents, he demonstrated why he has never lost an election in Texas. As one Democratic strategist once observed, when confronted with misstatements, Perry will argue that the world is flat.
Asked why one in four Texans are uninsured, Perry ignored the question, switching the subject to tap into the public’s increasing frustration with the federal government.
“Well, I'll tell you what the people in the state of Texas don't want. They don't want a health care plan like what Governor Romney put in place in Massachusetts,’’ Perry said. “What they would like to see is the federal government get out of their business.’’
Perry gave another poised response when asked how he would address the disproportionate poverty in black families. Steering clear of racial politics, Perry articulated one of the central platforms of the Republican Party: that anyone can succeed if they work hard and government doesn’t interfere.
But Perry got a little overheated when defending his sweeping criticism of Social Security. While his no-holds-barred demeanor explains his strong appeal to tea party activists, it could turn off more the moderate Republicans and independents he needs to build a winning coalition.
“It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old 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…. And I don't care what anyone says."
He should. If Perry wants to win the nomination, he’s going to have to show he can temper his inner cowboy.