Eight candidates took the stage Wednesday night for a GOP presidential debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., but two dominated: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in his debate debut as a presidential candidate, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who until Perry’s entrance into the race was long considered the field’s frontrunner.
The first 10 minutes of the debate, sponsored by NBC News and Politico, were devoted exclusively to Romney and Perry, locked in a battle over who created more jobs during their governorships. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who walked away from her two previous debates an unexpected success, seemed a comparative wallflower at this party; Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, appeared to get more facetime. Perry summed up the joys of being the new frontrunner: “I kind of feel like the piñata here at the party.”
On the issues, candidates marched essentially in lockstep on the economy, calling for lower taxes and less regulation. They sniped at each others' records on job-creation and staked out contrasting positions on immigration and Social Security, and had a lively debate over the wisdom of vaccinating middle-school girls against cervical cancer. Jon Huntsman, arguably the moderate of the field, reiterated his outside-the-GOP-mainstream faith in science on the issues of evolution and climate change.
Romney’s game seemed to be to argue down any success touted by Perry about his record. On job creation, Romney quipped of the Texas governor, “Texas is a great state. Texas has zero income tax. Texas has a right to work state, a Republican legislature, a Republican Supreme Court. Texas has a lot of oil and gas in the ground.
“Those are wonderful things,” Romney continued, “but Gov. Perry doesn't believe that he created those things. If he tried to say that, well, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.”
Perry retorted with a critique of Romney’s claims of success as a job creator during his tenure as governor of Massachusetts.
“Gov. Romney left the private sector, and he did a great job of creating jobs in the private sector all around the world,” Perry said. “But the fact is, when he moved that experience to government, he had one of the lowest job creation rates in the country. So the fact is, while he had a good private sector record, his public sector record did not match that. As a matter of fact, we created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts.”
Review our minute-by-minute live blog of the debate. All times Eastern:
9:50 p.m. And that's a wrap!
9:48 p.m. Paul, on government’s responsibility to poor and hungry children, inches away from libertarian orthodoxy: “I want to repeal all the mandates, but yes, if there are poor people in Texas, we have a responsibility.” Adds this admonition: “Don't always try to turn around and say that we who believe in liberty, we lack compassion, because we, who believe in liberty and understand the market, are the only ones who really understand how people are taken care of, how they are fed, and how people have jobs.”
9:45 p.m. Asked about GE not paying taxes, Cain says, “The government needs to get out of the business of picking winners and losers.”
9:44 p.m. Perry voices support for the death penalty. In Texas, there is “ultimate justice,” he says.
9:41 p.m. Romney says “everybody ought to feel they are part of this effort” in contributing taxes for government programs, but that middle-class Americans are hurting the most. As for Ben Bernanke? “I'd be looking for someone new,” he says.
9:39 p.m. Gingrich, on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke: “I would fire him tomorrow.” Says the Fed should be audited.
9:38 p.m. Asked if she stands by her statement that she would drill in the Florida Everglades, Bachmann says she would manage American energy resources across the nation responsibly. Regarding climate change, she says, “A political agenda is being advanced instead of a scientific agenda and this is resulting in a massive loss of jobs.”
9:36 p.m. Perry defends his skepticism on climate change. “Galileo got outvoted for a spell,” he says. “Find out what the science truly is before you put the American economy at jeopardy.” Pushed by moderators to cite specific scientists whose work he believes, Perry ducks the question and repeats his claim that the science is not settled.
9:34 p.m. Asked about his withering critiques of the rest of the Republican field, Huntsman makes a forceful case for himself and takes a not-so-subtle swipe at Perry's questioning of evolution and climate change. "In order for the Republican party to win, we can't run from science," Huntsman says. "By making claims that basically don't reflect the reality of the situation, we turn voters off."
9:33 p.m. Santorum warns against isolationism, citing the views of the president for whom the venue of the debate is named. “Ronald Reagan was committed to America being a force for good around the world,” Santorum says. “Are we going to stand in the Reagan tradition or are we going to take the isolationist view?"
9:32 p.m. "It was wrong for the president of the United States to go into Libya" Bachmann says. She warns that the rebel forces are an unknown quantity and that oil revenues may now fall into the hands of forces favoring "radical Islam" and "a global caliphate."
9:30 p.m. Bachmann says “the president has not done what he needs to do to keep the United States safe. If you look at the biggest issue in the Middle East, it's a nuclear Iran, and the president has taken his eyes off that prize, and he's said to Israel, they need to shrink back to their 1967 borders.” Points out that she sits “on a committee of intelligence, we deal with the nation's classified secrets, and I firmly believe the president of the United States has weakened us militarily and put us more at risk than any time.”
9:28 p.m. Perry says former remarks that the U.S. has employed “military adventurism” was a “philosophical statement that Americans don't want to see their young men and women going into foreign countries without a clear reason that American interests are at stake, and they want to see not only a clear entrance, a clear exit strategy as well.” He says “I tip my hat” to Obama for killing Osama bin Laden, “but I give more props to those Navy Seals who did the job.” The “other thing” the president has done,” Perry continues, is “he has proven for once and for all that government spending will not create one job.”
9:27 p.m. Romney: We have a crisis in confidence because we have an absence of leadership. He adds that Obama's is "just in over his head." He wants to restructure America's economy so it can lead globally again.
9:25 p.m. Huntsman: "I’d like everyone to take a pledge to take no pledges." The only pledge he's taken is to his wife, he says. On if we're safer than 10 years ago, he says "We have lost our confidence as a country. We’ve had our innocence shattered." Best way to commemorate lives lost of 9/11 is to focus on nation-building at home and repairing America's "core."
9:24 p.m. Bachmann on the subject of pledges. "We have to have a president with a core convictions." She's all for.
9:23 p.m. On last debate’s vote to employ $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax cuts, Perry says he stands with his fellow contenders. “What we should have been looking at is a way to get the spending under control and capping it, cutting it, and getting a balanced budget amendment. When you get a balanced budget amendment in Washington, D.C., you will finally start getting the snake's head cut off.”
9:22 p.m. Romney addresses what seems to have been a recent attempt to appeal to tea party Republicans. “I believe in a lot of what the tea party believes in,” he says, citing his jobs plan as a way to reduce taxes and create jobs. “If the tea party is for keeping government small and spending down and helping us create jobs, then hey, I'm for the tea party.”
9:18 p.m. Paul argues that sure, we can barb our fences with machine guns and keep the bad guys out, but that’s not what America is about. He also urges people to think about how fences can be used to keep people in, as well as keep others guys out.
9:17 p.m. Huntsman references Reagan on the immigration issue—he saw it as a “human issue.” “I have two daughters, one from China and one from India,” Huntsman says. “I see this through their eyes.”
9:15 p.m. Cain says there are three problems to be addressed on immigration reform: "First we've got to secure the border; secondly, let's promote the path to citizenship that's already there we don't need a new one, we just need to clean up the bureaucracy that's slowing the process down and discouraging people; third thing we need to do: enforce the laws."
9:13 p.m. Bachmann: “To not build a border or a fence on every part of that border would be, in effect, to yield United States sovereignty, not only to our nation but to another nation. That we cannot do. …Last week I was in Miami with Cuban Americans, I met with a number of people, and it's very interesting, the Hispanic-American community wants to stop giving benefits to illegal aliens and benefits to their children as well.”
9:12 p.m. Santorum, the son of an Italian immigrant, says he thinks “immigration is one of the great things that’s made this country the dynamic country that it continues to be” and that “we should not have a debate talking about how we don't want people to come to this country.” But, he says, “we need to have to have a program in place that says you want to come to this country, come according to the rules.”
9:10 p.m. Gingrich takes a different position. He says, we ought to control the border, institute a legal-guest worker program, be very tough on employers, and make English the official language -- a big applause line. "We should insist that both American children and first generation immigrants learn the English language," he says. Also argues against blind deporation--it must be done in a much more humane way.
9:07 p.m. Romney on immigration says that first, there needs to be a fence and enough agents on the ground to control the border, but more importantly, the United States needs to "turn off the magnet." He says there should be no amnesty for illegal immigrants and no tuition breaks for their children -- a shot at Perry, who signed a law offering in-state tuition to college-bound Texas youths whose parents brought them into the country illegally.
9:08 p.m. Perry, who does not support a border fence, says immigration reform “requires a commitment of the federal government of putting those boots on the ground, aviation assets in the air. We think predator drones could be flown and real-time information coming down to the local, state, and federal law enforcement, and you can secure the border and at that particular point in time you can have an intellectually appropriate discussion about immigration reform.”
9:06 p.m. Gingrich offers some praise for Obama's support of charter schools. He stands up for school-choice and lauds President Obama for taking a stand against teacher unions.
9:05 p.m. Perry says his education cuts were “thoughtful reductions,” and insists that Texas has improved on education during his time as governor. “When you share the border with Mexico,” Perry says, “and you have as many individuals that we have coming into the state of Texas, we have a unique situation in our state.”
9:03 p.m. Huntsman says that the biggest gift that the government could give America on the anniversary of 9/11 is a homeland security department that really works, that doesn’t give people the sense that they’re going to get shaken down. The fortress mentality is un-American, Huntsman says. Then pivots back to the jobs crisis—“a human tragedy.”
9:02 p.m. Cain: “Don’t eliminate FEMA, don’t eliminate homeland security. Let’s fix FEMA, and homeland security.” He says that the federal government is not good at micromanaging, that it’s best left to the states.
8:59 p.m. Just days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Paul says “9/11 came about because there was too much government. Government was more or less in charge, they told the pilots they couldn't have guns and were told never to resist. They set up the stage for all this, so no, private markets do a good job in protecting, much better than this bureaucracy called the TSA, let me tell you.”
8:58 p.m. Gingrich turns to homeland security issues and speaks of the need for the United States to respond to mass attacks.
8: 57 p.m. Romney softens on Perry’s record on parental rights: “I recognize he wanted very badly to provide better health care to his kids and prevent the spread of cancer,” Romney says. “I agree with those who said he went about it the wrong way, but I think his heart was in the right place.”
8:56 p.m. Santorum hits hard against Perry on the HPV vaccine issue. Says he’s offended that the government would try to impose on his family that way. Adds that he would expect that from a Democratic president, but not from a fellow conservative.
8:55 p.m. Perry plays the victim card: “I kind of feel like the pinata here at the party.” Under attack from Bachmann, Paul and Santorum for signing a law requiring vaccination of Texas middle-school girls against the virus that causes cervical cancer, Perry issues a lively defense. While he acknowledges he probably should have consulted the legislature on a measure that some social conservatives oppose as removing a deterrent to premarital sex, Perry adds: "I will always err on the side of saving lives."
8:54 p.m. With regards to the mandatory HPV vaccine that Perry enacted in Texas, Bachmann suggests it violates the rights of parents. "It's wrong for government to impose on parents what they must do," she says.
8:51 p.m. Cain advocates the "Chilean model" as a replacement for Social Security, “where you give a personal retirement account option so we can move this society from an entitlement society to an empowerment society.”
8:48 p.m. Social Security showdown between Romney and Perry. “In the book Fed Up, you say by any measure Social Security is a failure. you can't say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security and those who have lived on it," Romney says to Perry. "Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security but is committed to saving Social Security.” Perry reiterates his belief that Social Security is “a Ponzi scheme—it is. That is what it is," he said. "Maybe it's time to have some provocative language in this country," he adds.
8:48 p.m. Perry asked to explain his view that Social Security was a mistake from the very beginning. Perry responds that while that’s an interesting intellectual exercise, the focus needs to be on how we’re going to change this program. Adds that it's a Ponzi scheme to tell children that they're paying into a program that’s going to be there, it’s a “monstrous lie.” Confronted with the contrasting views of former Vice President Dick Cheney and GOP political strategist Karl Rove, Perry takes a shot at the former Bush political ace who has been sharply critical of the Texas governor. "Karl has been over the top for a long time," Perry said. "I'm not responsible for Karl anymore.... If VP President Cheney or anybody else says the program is going to be sound that is just a lie."
8:38 p.m. Perry goes on the attack against his fellow Texan, Paul, and references a letter that Paul wrote saying that he would quit the party because of the things that Reagan believed in. Paul retorts Reagan's message good but the consequences were not all that great, including sky-high deficits.
8:37 p.m. Paul says he won’t even address Bachmann’s $2 gas line, because “you can buy a gallon of gasoline today for a silver dime, a silver dime is worth $3.50; it's all about inflation and too many regulations.” He says Perry criticized Romney for his health care plan “but wrote a really fancy letter supporting Hillarycare. But mandates that's what society is about, what government does-- mandate, mandate, mandate. And we talk so much about the Obama mandate, which is very important, but what about Medicare, isn't that a mandate? Everything we do is a mandate.”
8:35 p.m. Huntsman takes an indirect swipe at Bachmann, essentially calling her promise to get gas prices down to $2 a gallon an attention line. “This is a perfect example of where presidential leadership matters,” he said. “To have a president who would actually walk out from behind the teleprompter, get out of the way, speak from your heart and soul, just tell us about where you want this country to go in terms of what we have in such great abundance. Tell us where we think we can find that which we have and concert it into jobs and remind the American people they are not paying $4 per gallon for gas. When you add up the cost of troop deployments and keeping the sea lanes open for the importation of imported oil, the bulking distribution and costs, it's $13,000 a gallon… and I say the American people have had enough.”
8:34 p.m. Bachmann says if United States’ energy regulations were rolled back, 1.2 million jobs could be created. Every time gasoline increases ten cents a gallon, $14 billion in economic activity comes out of Americans' pockets, she says.
8:32 p.m. Perry asked about new research showing that white households have 20 times the median income than black households. “The best thing we can do in this country for those who need help, is create an economy where people know they work hard and they can have a job and they can best take care of their family, not government. That's what we need to be doing in this country. That's true whether you're Hispanic, African-American, Asian, or Anglo,” Perry says.
8:30 p.m. Asked about how poverty and the poor fit into his vision for America, Santorum says "There was no one in the 12 years I was in the U.S.Senate that did more working on poverty issues than Rick Santorum." He cited welfare reform -- a bipartisan measure signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, as an example, saying it helped to end "a culture of dependency."
8:25 p.m. Repealing health care law will take a pro-active president, says Bachmann. She won’t wait for the bill to land at her desk. She would make it her business as the Republican nominee to elect 13 new senators to help repeal Obamacare.
8:23 p.m. Weighing in on health care, Huntsman invokes Bachmann’s favorite talking point—repealing ‘Obamacare’—while attacking Perry and Romney in one fell swoop.
As governor of Utah, he says, “we did better than Rick in terms of covering the uninsured and we don't have a mandate. It allows the free market to create choices and options for people. I believe once ‘Obamacare’ is repealed, and it will be, the question will then be what do we do now? And I'm here to tell you what we did in Utah will be a perfect example of what we do now. we promote cost cutting, harmonizing medical records, and expanding the market place for choices and options for individuals to choose from without a heavy-handed and expensive mandate that's caused for the family $225 bucks to go up.”
8:24 p.m. On health care, the governors go toe-to-toe. Romney says he understands health care "pretty darn well" and says he'll have the Health and Human Services Department grant a waiver to all states to opt out on day one as president. Perry blames unwieldy federal regulations for the large number of residents in his states without health insurance.
8:14 p.m. In response to question about which regulations she would roll back, Bachmann says she’s learned from conversations with voters across the country that President Obama's health care legislation has killed jobs and caused small businessowners to tighten their belts.
8:13 p.m. Rep. Ron Paul is asked about his hard line against government regulation and how that applies to dangerous drugs. “What I say is theoretically it could be privatized, but who ends up doing the regulations on the drugs?” Paul says. “They don't take good care of us. Who gets to write the regulations? The bureaucrats write the regulations, but who writes the laws? The lobbyists have controls, so lobbyists from the drug industry write the regulations, so you turn it over to the bureaucracy, but you'd have private institutions that could become credible. Do we need the federal government to tell us whether we buy a safe car? I say the consumers of America are smart enough to say what kind of car they can buy and whether it's safe or not and don't need the federal government hounding them that our car industry has gone overseas.”