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CNN/Tea Party Debate: Rick Perry Gets Hit From All Sides

Last night’s CNN/Tea Party Debate in Tampa was unlike anything we’ve seen so far in the Presidential cycle. For one thing, true to its name, the debate featured audience members and questions from Tea Party members at the debate site and at three other locations around the country. It started with something you’ve seen before in a Presidential debate, and are likely never to see again, the National Anthem. Apparently, this is quite common at Florida Tea Party gatherings, and this was definitely a Tea Party gathering. More than once, this meant questions on issues that were of more interest to the Tea Party than voters as a whole (the Federal Reserve question being the best example of this). That’s not to say there weren’t interesting questions asked that journalists might have missed; one woman from Virginia asked a somewhat inarticulate question about Executive Orders that touched on an issue that usually gets glossed over or totally ignored. For another, it meant that feedback from the audience was most positive when the candidates hit a Tea Party talking point, such as when Michele Bachmann once again referred to her opposition to raising the debt ceiling as if it were a good thing.

For the most part, though, the theme of last night’s debate was let’s hit Rick Perry, and the Texas Governor was taking it from both sides:

The Republican presidential candidates aggressively confronted Gov. Rick Perry at a debate here on Monday night, and pressed him to explain his views on Social Security and his decade-long record in Texas, including an effort to require the vaccination of schoolgirls and granting children of illegal immigrants a college tuition break.

The rapid rise of Mr. Perry, who joined the race only a month ago, made him a central target for his Republican rivals. He sought to deflect the critiques with humor and sarcasm, but he tried to clarify his position on Social Security, whose constitutionality he has questioned.

He said that he “slam-dunk guaranteed” promised benefits would be available to current retirees, but also suggested the nation should examine ideas like allowing states to opt out of Social Security and set up their own programs.

He repeatedly tangled with Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who pushed him again and again to expound on his positions. When Mr. Perry tried to flick away the questions, Mr. Romney declared: “We’re running for president.”

The debate went a long way in clarifying the contours of the Republican contest, both in terms of the strength of the candidates — for the second time in a row, Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry were the main players — but also on the issues driving the race. It is rare in a presidential primary to have such a vivid difference of opinion on a critical issue, as is the case with Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry on Social Security.

The Republican presidential debate often took on the feel of a rollicking political game show, playing out before a studio audience of 1,000 Tea Party activists here at the Florida State Fairgrounds. The debate was continually interrupted by applause, but it remained an open question whether the cheers or the jeers provided an accurate reflection of how Republican voters elsewhere were judging the evening.

(…)

While it was the fifth Republican presidential debate of the year, it was only the second time that Mr. Perry has joined the candidates on stage. His views on a variety of subjects are less well known than many of his rivals, so the questions often returned to him. He said that it was time to bring American troops home from Afghanistan “as soon and as safely as we can.”

Representative Ron Paul of Texas also took a shot at Mr. Perry when asked whether he deserved credit for his economic record in Texas. “I would put a little damper on this,” Mr. Paul said, “but I don’t want to offend the governor, because he might raise my taxes or something.”

The candidates were welcomed onto the neon-lit stage by Wolf Blitzer, the CNN anchor, as though they were contestants in a lightning round, complete with nicknames, including Mrs. Bachmann, “The Firebrand”; former Speaker Newt Gingrich, “The Big Thinker”; and Mr. Santorum, “The Fighter.”

CNN’s decision to co-sponsor the debate with the Tea Party Express resulted in a more roiling debate than the more decorous one last week at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California. The audience of about 1,000 made no secret of whom it liked and whom it did not, cheering along Mr. Perry and Herman Cain, a former business executive, and being cool to Mr. Romney.

Mr. Perry and Mr. Romney, whose lecterns were positioned side by side, quickly turned their answers into a nightlong match of one-upmanship. At one point, Mr. Perry leaned over and patted his rival on the back as the moderator asked Mr. Romney if Mr. Perry deserved any credit for job creation in Texas.”If you’re dealt four aces,” Mr. Romney said, “that doesn’t make you necessarily a great poker player.”

The big issue going into the debate was, of course, Social Security. As he had in the USA Today Op-Ed I wrote about yesterday, Perry backed away from the strong rhetoric he had been using on the campaign trail and in his book, which he repeated in the last debate. Instead, he sought to assure current recipients and those near the retirement age that their benefits, but that the nation needed to deal with the fact that the Social Security system would have to be reformed before it became unable to pay benefits for younger workers. That wasn’t good enough for Mitt Romney, though, who repeatedly challenged Perry on his previous statements that Social Security itself is unconstitutional and that it should be devolved to state control. Perry never answered the question directly, and has thus left himself open on this issue, which will most assuredly come up during the next debate on September 22nd, which also happens to be in Florida.

Here’s the entire Social Security exchange:

As Fred Bauer put it, Perry evaded on this issue, and he guaranteed that it will come up again.

The other issue where Perry took it on the chin was, as noted above, the Gardisil debate and, while he had the audience on his side when he started by admitting he made a mistake, he quickly lost control of the issue as Bachmann and Rick Santorum stepped in with their social conservative talking points:

Finally, Perry found himself the target when the issue of immigration came up, both over his opposition to a border fence and his support for a Texas law that gave in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants, which some of the right have incorrectly referred to as a Texas version of the DREAM Act. Even Jon Huntsman joined in on the exchange and came across and uncharacteristically right wing:

There were exchanges on the economy, and jobs, and foreign policy too, and you basically heard the same talking points that these candidates have repeated from other debates. The real news from last night is that Perry came under attack, and he didn’t come across well in his defense.  The general consensus this morning seems to be that Perry did not come across nearly as well in this debate as he did last week. Fred Barnes, for example, counts this as a clear Romney win as does The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza:

Four debates. Four times Romney has wound up in the winner’s circle. It’s not a coincidence. Romney proved yet again that he is the best debater in this field with another solid performance in which he effectively downplayed his liabilities on health care and accentuated his strengths on jobs and the economy. Romney played more offense than he has in previous debates, taking the fight to Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Social Security. He also got a major assist from Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), both of whom relentlessly bashed Perry. But that’s how debates work. Romney also, smartly, ignored the tea party audience in the hall — who occasionally booed him — and focused his messaging on the much broader audience of people watching the debate on CNN.

I’ve got to mostly agree with Cillizza here. Romney may not be the sexy candidate for conservatives but he continues to do a decent job of coming across as the competent, middle-of-the-road guy who can be trusted with the reigns of government. That’s the kind of thing that may not play well with the Tea Party audience, but it’s likely to resonate with mainline Republican voters in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. More important, Perry still hasn’t put the Social Security problem behind him and Romney has a credible case to make that his past statements on that issue pose a serious risk to his electability in a General Election. Even the hits that Perry took from the right will help Romney to some extent, and his campaign was all over that in the spin room last night:

“Rick Perry came into this debate with a Social Security problem and he left with a conservative problem and he had to defend himself,” said senior Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom. “Not only on the HPV vaccine, but on the taxes he increased, the spending and the debt that went up and his decision to provide in-state benefits to illegal immigrants.”

It’s early still, but Perry is now facing the biggest challenge yet to his month-old campaign. He found out Monday evening how difficult it can be to run as the activist favorite with some glaring deviations from party orthodoxy. Put another way, the tiger he’s been riding turned around. And that’s aside from any damage inflicted by Romney’s efforts to portray the Texas governor as too extreme on Social Security.

It’s not all over for Perry, of course. He lost last night, but this is a marathon, not a sprint. Perry is the frontrunner because he is the most electability candidate that best reflects the attitudes and beliefs of the base of the Republican Party and because of the doubts that conservatives about Mitt Romney. The attacks from the right aren’t likely to hurt him for the very simple reason that there is no other viable candidate on the right of Mitt Romney. Who else is the Tea Party going to rally behind, Bachmann, Santorum, Cain? I don’t think so. Two of those three had there time in the spotlight and faded quickly when better candidates came along. We have our two frontrunners right now, and that’s not likely to change any time between now and when the nomination is decided.

The other candidates had their moments, of course. Jon Huntsman continues to impress me as a candidate who is getting far less attention than he should, and who should be taken just as seriously as Romney and Perry. Gary Johnson, who wasn’t even invited to the debate, used the evening as another opportunity to answer the debate questions on Twitter. Newt Gingrich is back in professorial mode, which probably means he’s probably thinking about his next book. Herman Cain was virtually non-existent but combative as usual when he did speak. And, once again, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul went at it each other in an interesting, if utterly pointless, debate about military interventionism and the War on Terror:

In the end, though, these guys, and Bachmann, are just filler. In a few months, we’ll be watching debates where most of them won’t even be invited, although I would think that the Romney camp will be fine if Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum continue to show up and bash Rick Perry.

I’m not sure there will be any movement in the polls from this debate. Heck, considering the fact that there was a Monday Night Football doubleheader on at the same time, I’m not sure that anyone was watching the debate. What this race is setting up as, though, is a battle between Romney and Perry over the future of the GOP. The decision that voters make could have far reaching consequences.

If you’re at all inclined, you can watch the entire debate from beginning to end:

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Hey Norm says:

    We saw all we need to see from the Teavangelicals last night…let a sick man with no insurance die. A moment of frank honesty from the GOP. Death to the poor!!! Right now we have a huge number of 30-somethings unemployed. The people on stage last night had no answers – none – for what to do about it. But the Tea Stained audience cheered a sick man dying.
    Alan Grayson was pilloried for portraying the Republican health care plan as: ‘…Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly…’ Now we see Grayson was spot-on. Maybe the GOP was angry because Grayson understood how callous they really are. They cheered a sick man dying.
    The most amazing thing is that the Tea Party is also the religious right. And they cheered a sick man dying.
    This is all anyone needs to know about the GOP. The rest of last night was blah-blah-blah. But they cheered a sick man dying.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 28 Thumb down 1

  2. samwide says:

    CNN/Tea Party Debate: Rick Perry Gets Hit From All Sides

    Yeah, but Roy has it right:

    Perry is a retard, and he may suffer from his imbecilic answers in tonight’s debate, but he will probably go on to win the nomination from the retards who decide such things because he has the manner of a ex-jock car salesman who is fvcking their wives and making them like it, and has expressed a willingness to kill people.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 1

  3. Tano says:

    @Hey Norm:

    Yeah, I have to agree Hey Norm. I was very turned off by Alan Grayson and his comments – I found them nastily over-the-top. But after seeing the house erupt into cheers last night at the prospect of an young uninsured person being left to die – I have to reluctantly admit that Grayson was right. These are sick, deeply ugly people. I refuse to believe that the American mainstream is going to ever flow in their direction.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 1

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    ”If you’re dealt four aces,” Mr. Romney said, “that doesn’t make you necessarily a great poker player.”

    That earned a laff.

    Thanx Doug. Don’t have TV and right now my computer doesn’t have sound so I can’t even hear the clips, so I really appreciate the analysis.

    A question for all: As disaffected as the tea-party is, and in light of their “all or nothing” positioning, what will they do if Mittens gets the nomination? Bolt? Stay home in Nov? Hold their nose and vote GOP? I would say the last, but….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. Hey Norm says:

    @ Tano…
    I would hope the middle of America would not be interested in this sort of thing…but Mr. Perry talks in good soundbites…and that is the only level of thought Americans in general are capable of.
    I have to agree with the guy that Samwide linked to above: we are a**-f’ed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  6. MBunge says:

    “What this race is setting up as, though, is a battle between Romney and Perry over the future of the GOP.”

    This isn’t a battle between Romney or Perry or any of the candidates. It’s really a battle between Southern Republicans and everybody else.

    Mike

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 1

  7. Anonne says:

    Romney keeps leaving out the fact that the biggest growth of jobs in Texas was in GOVERNMENT (gasp!) jobs. Thanks to increases in population. If the so-called “Texas Miracle” were to be replicated at the national level, it would mean hiring more federal workers. While that wouldn’t be a bad thing from my point of view, it should make tea partiers go nuts. But Romney keeps missing that point. He needs to do better opposition research.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  8. Fiona says:

    I could only watch a small portion of the debate before my eyes started to bleed, but I did catch Perry trying to patronize Bachman on the vaccine issue, only to have her come back and put him in his place. You go girl. Wipe that GWB smirk off the moron’s face.

    Once again, Mitt and Huntsman were the only two candidates in the room who came across as vaguely sane and competent, and who might not finish the job Bush II started of driving the country into the ground. Of course, the Tea Party crowd had no idea what to do with them aside from boo.

    I too agree with what was said in the aforementioned link to Roy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  9. john personna says:

    Where is this “sick man”‘ story on-line? I didn’t watch and don’t know what happened.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. Ron Beasley says:

    @MBunge: Perry is running for President of the Confederate States of America not the United States of America.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  11. Hey Norm says:

    @ JP…
    Not in Dougs post – that’s for sure.

    Blitzer asks the question and before Paul can answer the crowd cheers.
    http://elections.americablog.com/2011/09/tea-party-crowd-about-sick-man-without.html

    Paul’s answer is no gem in itself although it has nothing to do with the crowds reaction.

    “…And we’ve given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves and assume responsibility for ourself, our neighbors, our friends, our churches would do it…”

    I think this is about as naive as the idea that the Civil Rights Act is unessecary because the free-market won’t allow discrimination. Just stupid really. But very Libertarian.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  12. john personna says:

    @Hey Norm:

    The clip doesn’t play on my Ubuntu setup, but the text reads pretty bad.

    I read somewhere that we should be unsurprised if during hard times people actually become less caring, less sympathetic.

    It is more or less the sentiment I heard from Orange County conservatives … “in the good old days, if people failed, they failed.”

    … no recognition that failing is not always a moralilty tale, and sometimes it’s plain bad luck. Though … maybe bad luck is reason enough to fail, really fail, these days.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  13. Hey Norm says:

    @ JP…
    Yeah…I think it’s all part of the “I got mine” syndrome. And it’s also the reason Teavangelicals are so concerned about “others”…people who don’t look or sound like them. They are afraid the “others” are going to take what they have. You can hear it in statements Pat Buchanan makes all the time. They are afraid they are losing their country…hence the “Take America Back” slogan. Very petty, very selfish, very short-sighted. Which also describes just about everyone on the stage last night. They are incapable of understanding that diversity makes any ecosystem stronger, and homogenization makes ecosystems weak.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  14. john personna says:

    @Hey Norm:

    In hard times I think it’s less “I got mine” and more about fear of holding on, themselves.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. anjin-san says:

    take care of ourselves and assume responsibility for ourself, our neighbors, our friends,

    I just love this line. Let’s say that one of us has a wife who is recovering at home from some fairly serious surgery. What do you do when you find out you have to work late? Why ask your neighbor to help out, of course! “Say Phil, I have to work late tonight. Do you think you could stop by at 6:00 and give my wife a sponge bath”?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  16. Wayne says:

    Liberals are going to hate what a conservative says. They won’t vote for the Republican nominee regardless of who it is. Their strong bias greatly clouds their opinion of who won or lost in a Republican debate. Their opinions should mean nothing in selecting a Republican nominee.

    I caught the first 45 minutes of the debate recast. Romney seemed childish with many of his comments. Did fair in others but came of a being politically expedient. He kept saying “But but you called it a ponzi scheme”. All the other candidates pretty much slam Romney one including similar remarks that Romney said himself. I didn’t like Huntsman much at all. I like some things that Bachmann said but she kind of came off odd. Perry came off a little unsure of what to say in some of his retorts but the substance of what he did say was fairly good. Santorum kept talking about being experience. That sounded good when it pertained to the question but at other time sounded like a broken record. Newt was pretty good at answering the questions. His problem is his trustworthiness. Cain did well. Ron Paul problem is he some good concepts but too extreme in how he wants to execute them. He has some extreme concepts as well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  17. mantis says:

    In last week’s debate the biggest applause came at the mention of the large number of people executed in Texas under Perry.

    Last night, a big cheer erupted in the audience at the idea of a young uninsured person dying.

    Last night, all the candidates piled on Perry for daring to try to vaccinate girls from an extraordinarily common virus that causes 70% of cervical cancer, which kills thousands of American women each year. 70% of potential victims in the future would be saved through vaccination. The entire field of Republican candidates wants them dead.

    Republican Party? Conservatives? Tea Party? Nope. It’s the Party of Death. Simple as that. They love the idea of their fellow citizens dying in terrible ways. These are sick, heartless people and we should not allow them to take control of our country.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  18. Hey Norm says:

    @ Wayne…
    Actually I yearn for conservatives. There were none on the stage last night. The few that exist today; Frum, Bartlett, Sullivan, etc. have been ostracized by the GOP. And they cheered for a sick man dying.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  19. ponce says:

    Their opinions should mean nothing in selecting a Republican nominee.

    I disagree.

    If the Republicans nominate a candidate who appeals to Democrats in some way, it’s likely more independent voters will vote for them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. ponce says:

    It’s really a battle between Southern Republicans and everybody else.

    Reminds me of this map showing only 10% of white voters in Mississippi voted for Obama:

    http://blog.nola.com/news_impact/2008/11/Obama-white-vote-nov09-2008.gif

    P.S. It’s always makes me laugh when I realize I can spell Mississippi without looking it up because of that little tune :)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  21. Terrye says:

    I think Perry was hurt last night. I think a lot of people who are interested in politics were watching that debate. Perry showed some weakness on immigration. The real problem with the vaccine was not so much a social issue as it was an issue of crony capitalism.. And Perry has been all over the place on social security.

    Time will tell of course, but Perry needs to get better than this.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. Hey Norm says:

    Guys…my post at the top got 26:1 likes:dislikes. That has got to be some sort of record…what do I win???

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. Tlaloc says:

    the Texas Governor was taking it from both sides:

    Thanks. The mental image that line provoked would embarrass wonkette.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0