Rick Perry’s six-foot frame seemed to slump in his chair during Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary debate, at a time when he should have been rising to the challenge.
The Texas governor sorely needed to notch a solid debate performance to arrest his freefall in the polls and reclaim his status as the biggest threat to the Republican to beat, Mitt Romney. He didn’t, reviving questions about his readiness for the national stage and raising new ones about his ability to sustain an initial, $17 million fundraising blitz.
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Unlike previous debates, the eight Republican candidates on the stage in Hanover, N.H. were seated around a table instead of standing behind podiums. Perry fidgeted in his chair. He gave rambling responses, let Romney get off without a serious blow, and was caught on camera wincing in response to his rivals.
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While Perry hoped to make the debate a referendum on one of Romney’s biggest liabilities – the similar requirements in the health insurance law he signed as governor of Massachusetts and the federal law President Obama’s enacted – there was far more discussion of the catchy “9-9-9’’ economic plan offered by his surging rival, Herman Cain.
When Perry finally had a chance to put Romney on the spot, the ex-Massachusetts governor delivered a strong counterpunch that took the sting out of the loaded question about his health care record. Turning the table, Romney said he was “proud’’ that he took on a major problem. He noted that his home state has the lowest number of uninsured kids in the nation, while Texas has the highest.
In a debate devoted to the economy, Perry offered few specifics about what he would do to improve American prosperity beyond promising to capitalize on the nation’s “treasure trove’’ of energy resources. “What we need to be focused on in this country today is not whether or not we are going to have this policy or that policy,’’ he said in a debate that was supposed to be focused on, well, economic policy. “Mitt’s had six years to be working on a plan,’’ he said in a dig at Romney’s long-running campaign for the White House. “I’ve been in this for about eight weeks.’’
Asked how he would reduce mounting poverty in the nation, Perry laid the problem at President Obama’s feet.
“The reason we have that many people living in poverty is because we have a president of the United States who is a job killer,’’ Perry said. “You have a president who doesn’t understand how to create wealth… This president, I will suggest to you, is the biggest deterrent to getting this country back on track.’’
Perry didn’t catch any breaks from the debate’s questioners, either. Asked about a solar energy company that went bust after receiving half a billion dollars in Obama stimulus money, Perry had barely responded before he had to field a follow-up about the shortcomings of a similar loan problem in Texas.
Perry may have finally hit his stride in his closing remarks when he talked about his own hard-scrabble upbringing and described commiserating with an unemployed rig operator in the Gulf of Mexico. “They’re begging for someone to make America, America again,’’ he said.