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.
(PICTURES: 8 GOP Presidential Hopefuls Debate in N.H.)
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.
One of the hallmarks of the 2012 Republican primary so far has been that debates matter. The beginning of the end of Tim Pawlenty’s campaign came when he balked at confronting Romney on stage in June. Michele Bachmann’s profile rose and fell on the strength -- and weakness -- of her early performances. Perry lost his front-runner’s perch after a string of shaky debate appearances last month.
He didn’t commit any major gaffes on Tuesday, but his uneven delivery won’t help him make the case to the Republican voters that he would be the strongest challenger to President Obama.
Tuesday’s debate was unlikely to have drawn as large an audience as previous matchups since it was shown on the Bloomberg TV, not a major cable or broadcast network. It was also sponsored by The Washington Post and streamed live on the newspaper’s website.
The debate was the first since New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin announced that they would not run in 2012, injecting some certainty into one of the most volatile GOP primaries in decades. Christie unexpectedly endorsed Romney shortly before the debate, giving him a major boost of confidence he seemed to wear on stage.
As he has in previous debates, Romney continued to position himself for the general election, talking about the “good Democrats and good Republicans who love this country first’’ and emphasizing the plight of the middle class.
In a cutting remark that belittled both Perry for not detailing a sweeping economic plan and Cain for offering a tax reform slogan, Romney said, “Simple answers are always very helpful but oftentimes inadequate, in my view. To get this economy going we’re going to have to deal with more than tax policy and energy policy, even though those are part of my plan."
Cain, the Atlanta corporate executive who only weeks ago was barely registering in the polls, was seated between Romney and Perry to reflect his recent surge. While he displayed the bluntness and sense of humor that are becoming his trademarks, he also exposed himself as a political neophyte with his reluctance to identify his “well-recognized’’ economic advisers.
If voters were looking for unconventional or bipartisan solutions in the first 2012 debate focused on the economy, they were likely to be disappointed. The candidates mostly delivered the standard talking points of the Republican Party, demanding less spending, lower taxes, fewer regulations, and smaller government.
“I think it’s a terrible idea to cut defense,’’ Romney said. “I think it’s a terrible idea to raise taxes."
Asked whether Wall Street executives should have gone to jail for their role in the economic meltdown in 2008, Michele Bachmann refused to blame anyone other than Washington. “You can trace it right back to the federal government,’’ she said.
Government-bashing in the 2012 race has become predictable as an awkward joke or two from Jon Huntsman.