Pressure on Perry

GOP presidential candidates go after the Texas governor.

The sparks flew during last night’s Republican presidential debate, with Texas Governor Rick Perry taking the lion’s share of the blows. He handled himself well, with applause-generating punch lines and counter-attacks, but criticism of his record as a conservative will make the race more competitive in the weeks ahead.

Governor Perry was under fire from almost every other candidate, as Mitt Romney went after his record on the economy and Social Security, and the others targeted him on immigration and his ordering that schoolgirls get an HPV vaccination. His biggest applause line came in his opening, when he pledged to “make Washington D.C. as inconsequential in your life as possible.” His statement that “People are tired of spending money we don’t have on programs we don’t want” was also well received.

Perry was loudly booed when he defended his decision to grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. He was also left nearly speechless after a series of blistering attacks by Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum on the vaccination issue. Perry tried to preempt the forthcoming criticisms by praising parental rights and noting that he allowed parents to opt their children out of the vaccinations, but it failed to stop the barrage of punches thrown his way.

Mitt Romney had an excellent night as Perry received almost all of the negative attention. He had numerous applauses, such as when he suggested that President Obama was failing to modernize the economy. He struck Perry for calling social security a “Ponzi scheme,” using it to highlight questions about his electability. He also contrasted their records on job growth by pointing out how Perry’s two predecessors had higher rates. Compared to previous debates, criticism of Romney’s health care plan was gentle this time. His only mistake was rudely interrupting Perry during their exchange on social security, a tactical error that will be forgotten.

Right out of the gate, Michele Bachmann showed the fire that she lost during the last debate. She received huge applause in her opening when she described how she fought on behalf of the Tea Party, and won a bigger applause when she said it was a mistake for the House Republicans to agree to raise the debt ceiling. Claps were heard when she clashed with Perry, but her questioning of his integrity may backfire. She pointed out that his chief of staff was tied to the drug company that profited from the HPV vaccinations he ordered in public schools, and that the company donated to his campaign. “If you say I can be bought for $5,000, I am offended,” Perry replied. She responded that she was offended by his vaccine mandate.

Newt Gingrich still has not criticized any other candidate on stage, keeping to his strategy of positioning himself as a second-favorite among the supporters of his rivals. He had the biggest applause line of the night when he said, “I’m not worried about Governors Perry and Romney frightening the American people when President Obama scares them every day.” He then hit the President on warning senior citizens that they may not get their social security checks if the Republicans didn’t compromise during the debate over the debt ceiling. Gingrich, as usual, came off as the candidate with the most substantive policy positions, but his strong debate performances have not resulted in an uptick in his poll numbers.

Ron Paul was the sole candidate to take on Perry over the issue of taxes, debt and growth of government. He said that much of Perry’s job creation came from making government jobs and accused him of raising taxes. Paul’s biggest moment was when he said he “doesn’t want to offend the Governor because he might raise my taxes.” Paul was booed when he blamed U.S. foreign policy for the 9/11 attacks and especially when he spoke of the “mistreatment of Palestinians.”

Rick Santorum used his opening to address questions about his electability, emphasizing that he won two elections in a Democratic state without compromising. He criticized Perry for opposing building a fence across the entire Mexican border and especially for granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. He repeatedly emphasized that he has long fought for conservative causes. He had a strong night, but he has yet to carve out a unique role for himself in the debates.

Herman Cain also did well. He was articulate as usual and refrained from attacking the other candidates. He is inserting more substance into his answers, particularly on social security and his 9-9-9 economic plan. His big moment was when he said, “People say I don’t know how Washington works. I say, yes I do. It doesn’t.” Cain was able to come off more as a credible presidential candidate than he has in the past, but like Santorum, still is struggling to set himself apart from the others.

Jon Huntsman emphasized electability and is trying to turn his moderate positions into an asset. He takes comfort in the fact that Senator John McCain won in 2008, but the Republican Party has moved in the opposite direction in 2012. His biggest applause came when he called for leaving Afghanistan at a quicker pace. He was booed when a joke of his fell flat, saying that Perry’s position on the border is nearly “treasonous.” The poor comedic delivery made it sound like an attack, rather than a wisecrack referencing Perry’s statement that the Federal Reserve was acting “almost treasonous” by printing more money.

Perry is now under the spotlight, and the solidness of his support is being tested. Changes in his poll numbers in the coming days will indicate whether his rivals’ attempts to cause doubt about his conservative credentials and electability are taking a toll. The next debate is September 22. Mark it on your calendars.