Perry, Romney Face Off

Texas Governor draws fire in first debate appearance.

Last night’s Republican presidential debate was all about Texas Governor Rick Perry. It was his first debate, kicking off a series of five debates in six weeks that will reshape the structure of the race. Perry’s primary obstacle was the high expectations of his candidacy. The question of whether he measured up to the hype will determine the verdict on his performance and ultimately, his campaign.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney opened the debate, emphasizing his experience on creating jobs in the private sector. He made the point that fixing the economy requires having worked in the economy, not just in government. It was a polite contrast with Perry that fell far short of an attack. Romney’s campaign had decided not to go on the offensive, knowing that it was imperative for the other candidates to take him on. Romney was poised throughout the debate, appearing presidential and articulate, but his candidacy will be increasingly threatened as voters that oppose him rally behind fewer candidates.

Perry immediately criticized Romney’s record, saying his performance in the private sector did not lead to impressive job growth. He boasted that the job growth in Texas dwarfed that of Massachusetts. Romney delivered an effective counter-punch, saying that the two states could not be compared, partly because of the natural resources, like oil and gas, that exist in Texas. To give Perry credit for the growth caused by those resources, Romney argued, was like giving Al Gore credit for inventing the Internet. It was his biggest applause of the night, and was a reference to Perry’s prominent role in Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign.

The exchange, which was the hottest of the night, continued. Perry responded that former Democratic governor of Massachusetts Michael Dukakis had higher job growth than Romney, who made the same comparison between Perry and Bush’s tenures. The confrontation was done with smiles, unlike the August onstage battle between Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who exited the race after a poor showing in the Ames Straw Poll.

Rick Perry adequately defended himself, particularly from criticism by Karl Rove and former Vice President Dick Cheney. His most powerful moment was when he discussed the death penalty in Texas, and how he does not regret executing convicted murderers. However, it is likely that his comment about Social Security being a “Ponzi scheme” will dominate the coverage of the debate, and may cause concern about his electability. He stood by the comment, but kept repeating that Social Security is in a broken state. Even if Republican voters agree with his statement, they’ll want to see a more articulate defense of his position in future debates and interviews.

Bachmann’s presence faded in the debate. She lacked a stand-out moment, though many viewers probably connected with her on an emotional level when she discussed the affects the economy is having on children and the youth that are just entering the workforce. Unfortunately for her, it is difficult to imagine that one portion of the debate earning any votes. The problem she faces is that if she attacks Perry, she may alienate his supporters and discourage them from coming to her camp. She may be wise to hold off on going on the offensive for the moment to see if Perry’s support has peaked and will fall as he comes under the spotlight.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich drew the biggest applause of the night when he took on the MSNBC moderators. He did this during the previous debate hosted by Fox News and the Washington Examiner and scored big points for doing so. This time, he criticized the moderators and accused the news media of trying to stir up conflict between the Republican candidates in order to help President Obama. He defended all of the candidates, saying that despite their differences, all of them would repeal ObamaCare. In so doing, Gingrich positioned himself to become the second choice of primary voters who have chosen other candidates. If he uses this tactic again, however, it runs the risk of appearing gimmicky.

Gingrich hopes to follow the track of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in 2008, likewise rising to the forefront through the debates. The difference is that Huckabee was new at that time, and many voters have a strong familiarity with Gingrich. He will have to prove that his campaign is viable in order to get volunteers to work for him and supporters to donate to him. If he can point to a quick rise in the polls, he may be able to accomplish this.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum took on Perry for requiring female students to get an HPV vaccination. He said he was offended that Perry had overruled parental rights. Santorum also had a bright moment when he criticized a growing “isolationist” trend within the Republican Party. This will earn him support from foreign policy hawks, but it’s still difficult to see the rationale for his candidacy. He isn’t the only hawk or social conservative in the race, and the rest didn’t lose re-election by 18 points.

Businessman Herman Cain’s strongest moment was when he proposed the U.S. should follow the Chilean model in reforming Social Security. He is making a concerted effort to be a candidate of more substance, and is emphasizing states’ rights more frequently. His primary obstacle is setting his candidacy apart from the others. There is no issue, cause or strength that he can call his own. He originally had significant support from the anti-Islamist voters, but it will be difficult for Cain to recover after his visit to a Muslim Brotherhood mosque.

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman vastly improved upon his last debate performance. He spoke articulately and came off as a credible presidential candidate. However, his criticism of other Republican candidates’ heated rhetoric and defense of the politicized science behind global warming and evolution likely damaged his candidacy. His goal is to make a strong stand in New Hampshire by winning support from moderates and Independents. This debate performance re-introduces him to the voters, but he will not be the darling of the average conservative.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul went after Perry, and hit the typical libertarian talking points. He had numerous applause lines, and spoke on economic issues with clarity and substance. His problem is that he’s probably reached the ceiling of his support. He is not the second choice of many primary voters. They either support his candidacy or staunchly oppose it.

There was no major shake-up in the race this debate, and Romney and Perry will still be considered the frontrunners. The second-tier candidacies will experience the greatest amount of shifting, and it is very possible that one of them will break through the pack to enter the first tier by the time this series of five debates is over. This is only the beginning.