Once Again, Romney Wins And Perry Falters In GOP Debate
Last night's Republican debate is likely to raise more questions about Rick Perry in the minds of voters.
For the third time in three weeks, the Republican candidates met in a nationally televised debate and, as before, both the themes and the outcome were familiar. From the very start, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry were the main focus of attention and, once again, Perry looked unpolished, unprepared, and at times incoherent in his responses. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, continued to perform as well has he had in the past and even had the crowd behind him in a way we haven’t seen in the past. There really wasn’t a single headline-worthy moment from anyone on the stage, although there were plenty of odd ones and several that were cringe worthy. Unfortunately for Perry, many of those cringe worthy moments came from the guy who’s supposed to be the frontrunner. The debate format itself was, at the very least, better than last week’s Tea Party debate (although there were still guys in Colonial garb in the audience) and the addition of questions submitted via YouTube actually came off better than I had expected. Best of all, though, Fox News had gotten rid of the ding-dong” that had been used to warn candidates they were going over time during the August debate in Iowa. It’s replacement was, at the very least, less annoying than the original but still ignored by candidates for whom the concept of time limits was apparently a novelty.
Outside of the main Perry-Romney scrum, the other candidates did have some interesting moments. Jon Huntsman continues to demonstrate that his back-of-the-polls position is hiding the fact that he’s really one of the best candidates up on that stage. Rick Santorum continues to try to break through past the likes of Michele Bachmann. Herman Cain is trying, and to some extent succeeding, to remake himself as the guy with the economic plan. Ron Paul was, well, Ron Paul although he didn’t seem to get nearly as much air time as he used to. Gary Johnson, back in his first debate than May, came across much better than he did the first time the few times the moderators got to him, and even managed to get in what many considered the line of the night.
The real battle, though, the one that everyone was paying attention to, was the clash between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry:
ORLANDO, Fla. — In their third debate in as many weeks, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas engaged in a sometimes heated back and forth over immigration, health care and entitlements, their rivalry dominating a stage that included seven other candidates struggling to catch up in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry arrived here with a strategic imperative to challenge the other’s consistency and conservative credentials. The tensions only grew as the night wore on, to the point where Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah, joked that Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry were at risk of bludgeoning each other to death.
Still, after two hours of dueling it was unclear whether Mr. Perry had achieved his goal of knocking Mr. Romney off his fairly unruffled stride. It was similarly not certain that Mr. Romney had made headway in knocking Mr. Perry down a few pegs in what has been a relatively strong opening to his young campaign.
Mr. Romney sought to capitalize on the concern among many conservatives about Mr. Perry’s position on illegal immigration, harshly criticizing the Texas policy that allows illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.
“That just doesn’t make sense to me,” Mr. Romney said, noting that illegal immigrants receive as much as $22,000 a year in tuition breaks that out-of-state citizens do not get.
Offering an impassioned defense of that policy — and receiving boos from a segment of the audience — Mr. Perry did not back down, saying, “If you say that we should not educate children that have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought here by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.”
The debate, held at the Orange County Convention Center and sponsored by Fox News, Google and the Republican Party of Florida, featured robust audience participation and questions submitted via YouTube. The 5,000 people there responded loudly at times, including boos during a question from a gay solider about the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding gay and lesbian service members.
And while the Fox News moderators sought to engage all of the candidates, the exchanges between Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry — standing side by side — overshadowed the others.
At one point, Mr. Romney cited a passage from Mr. Perry’s book “Fed Up!” and said the Texas governor had suggested that state or local governments be allowed to run their own Social Security programs. He accused Mr. Perry of running away from his own words.
“There’s a Rick Perry out there that’s saying the federal government shouldn’t be in the pension business,” Mr. Romney said. “You better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that.”
Mr. Perry hit back by accusing Mr. Romney of editing his book “No Apologies” between printings to remove a passage saying that the health care plan he instituted in Massachusetts — considered a model for President Obama’s overhaul — was good for the nation.
“You said that it was exactly what the American people needed to have — that’s Romneycare — given to them as you had in Massachusetts,” he said.
Mr. Romney responded by saying: “I actually wrote my book, and in my book I said no such thing. And it’s fine for you to retreat from your own words in your own book, but please don’t try and make me retreat from the words that I wrote in my book.”
As the exchanged continued, Mr. Perry, standing to Mr. Romney’s right, joked, “It’s kind of badminton” and swung his arm. But later he set any joking aside, saying of Mr. Romney, “I think Americans don’t know sometimes which Mitt Romney they’re dealing with.”
Mr. Romney had managed to emerge relatively unharmed from the past few debates, and the pressure was on Mr. Perry to change that. If Mr. Perry’s key line was meant to be a solid punch to the jaw, he seemed to rush it and stumble a bit.
“Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of — against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it — was before — he was before the social programs from the standpoint of — he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against first — Roe v. Wade?” he said. “I mean we’ll wait until tomorrow to see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight.”
That exchange was perhaps emblematic of the problems that Perry faced throughout the night:
That wasn’t the only rambling, incoherent response that Perry delivered last night. During the five minutes or so that the debate turned its attention to foreign policy, Perry was presented with a question about Pakistan and, well, you just have to see it for yourself:
The take away I get from this is that Perry is the kind of guy who isn’t really well-versed in foreign policy and who has been filled with factoids from his advisers that he just spit out in a word salad in response to perhaps the most serious question about Pakistan that one can ask. The most bizarre part was Perry’s suggestion that we need to work with Perez Musharaff. Unless the Governor is unaware, Musharaff is living in exile in London and has little credibility left in Pakistani politics. I’m not saying that Perry should be expected to give a two minute answer on Pakistani nuclear weapons off the top of his head, but the purpose of these debates is for the candidates to at least demonstrate that they understand the issues they’d be dealing with as President and, on this one, Perry completed punted.
Another debate moment that may come back to haunt Perry was his response to the inevitable question about the HPV vaccine. It started out as a question for Michele Bachmann, who was asked to justify her rather bizarre comments after last week’s debate regarding a woman who claimed that the vaccine caused her child’s mental retardation. When the question came to Perry, though, he chose to defend himself again, and said that he made the decision to sign the Executive Order after being lobbied by a woman with cervical cancer:
As it turns out, though, Perry didn’t meet this woman until after he had signed the Executive Order when she was lobbying the Texas Legislature to uphold his Executive Order. It’s a touching story, the problem for Perry is that it just isn’t true, and the fact-checking stories are already being tossed around the conservative blogosphere. Personally, I though Perry had handled the Gardisil issue just fine in the last debate, but I suspect he may have hurt himself this time with the people on the right for which this matters.
Speaking of hurting himself with people on the right, Perry’s response to the other issue that he’s out of step with the right on isn’t likely to win him many friends. In response to a question on immigration, and specifically criticism of his support for Texas legislation that gives in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants, Perry said the following:
“If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they’ve been brought their through no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said. “We need to be educating these children because they will become a drag on our society. I think that’s what Texans wanted to do. Out of 181 members of the Texas legislature when this issue came up [there were] only four dissenting votes. This was a state issue. Texas voted on it. And I still support it today
Personally, I don’t think its a bad answer, and I don’t find very much objectionable about the program itself, but many on the right are likely to react badly to it.
Most of all, though, Perry didn’t come across any better in this debate than he did in his previous two, which leads Jonathan Tobin to assert that the debates are killing Perry:
While Perry has done well on the stump, he just can’t seem to keep it together at these debates. Coming off his poor performances in the previous two debates, you have to wonder why his preparation was so poor for the third. That either speaks to his shortcomings or an arrogant refusal to understand that mistakes have to be corrected.
Since we know that reaction to the past two debates first slowed Perry’s momentum and then trimmed what had become an impressive lead, we can only expect that his even worse performance in Orlando will further diminish his standing. Perry needs to understand that these debates are killing his candidacy. While he may think the fact that the next debate won’t be until Oct. 11 is good news for him, that also means he must wait three weeks for another chance to do better.
Kevin Drum concurs:
What was interesting was listening to Frank Luntz’s focus group after the debate. There were a ton of defectors from Perry to Romney. I don’t know if this means anything, but if it does it means that even the Republican base may be getting a little weary of Perry’s audio-animatronic good ol’ boy schtick. Plus a lot of the focus groupers really bought in to Romney’s criticism of Perry’s policy of letting illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition at Texas universities, and they were really upset at Perry’s defense. They did not — not not not — appreciate his suggestion that anyone who disagreed with him about this was heartless. That’s the kind of thing they hear from liberals, and they’re sick of it.
Perry now has the base firmly upset with him over both immigration and the HPV vaccine; he was unable to really defend himself on either Social Security or the number of uninsured in Texas; and his lack of policy seriousness is starting to go beyond winsome and edging instead into not-ready-for-prime-time territory.
It’s definitely true that Perry’s poll numbers have faltered since the debates started at the beginning of the month, and that his performance in the past two debates has been less than stellar. However, I’m not sure that’s really killing his candidacy. With the exception of immigration, he remains closer to the GOP base on most issues than Mitt Romney, and his years of experience in office make it next to impossible for any of the other candidates on the right to make a credible argument that they deserve to surpass him. Moreover, the faltering we see in the polls may not be due to Perry losing favor with the GOP faithful so much as it is just a natural pull back from what was an amazingly quick rise to the top on his part. If there’s further slippage for Perry, then we might be able to say that he’s hurting himself, but I don’t know that we’ve seen that yet.
Moreover, as Slate’s John Dickerson points out, the approach that Perry is taking may mean that how he performs in these debates doesn’t matter as much as some might think:
Going into the debate, Perry was showing himself to be the kind of conservative voters can connect with based on his background and worldview. He has been talking about how he was not born with “four aces in his hand.” At the Faith and Freedom conference before the debate, he talked about prayer like no other candidate did. Romney’s message to the same group had been about the economy. Perry’s message: I’m one of you. Before the debate the Perry campaign sent a press release titled “Middle Class Mitt,” making fun of a gaffe earlier in the week when Romney, who is worth nearly $200 million, talked about being a member of the middle class. Message: He’s not like you and me—and he’s a phony, too.
The emotional connection Perry is trying to create is more powerful than the intellectual pitch Romney is making. That may allow Perry to weather his poor performance in this debate. Republican voters are still in the shopping stage. Perry can get back on track, but for now his debates are the un-Google: They raise more questions than they answer.
This is perhaps Perry’s biggest problem. Going into the debate, and looking at his rapid rise to frontrunner status, there were several pundits who wondered if this series of debates would be Perry’s chance to almost effectively close the deal with voters. To some extent, he succeeded in that he remains the only real alternative to Mitt Romney in the race. Candidates like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum will stay in the in the race for awhile, but unless Perry completely implodes they’re not going to be considered top-tier candidates. The problem for Rick Perry, though, is that he seems to be having trouble rebutting the Romney campaign’s argument that he’s not electable, and each time he gets up on a debate stage and returns a sub-par performance, he only serves to reinforce that argument.
It’s sometimes hard to say for certain that one candidate won or another candidate lost a debate, but there’s no such problem this time. Last night, Mitt Romney once again walked away looking Presidential while Rick Perry looked unprepared. As long as that continues happening, Republicans are going to be wise to doubt whether Perry is the man best suited to taking on Barack Obama in the Fall of 2012.