Any spectators of American political sport who were eager for the gentle, get-to-know-the-candidates phase of the Republican presidential primary to give way to real bloodletting got their wish on Wednesday night. Introductions at the GOP debate, hosted by the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., were barely over before the front-runners — Texas Governor Rick Perry, entering his first national forum, and Mitt Romney, a two-time veteran of presidential races– joined combat. While the other candidates landed some strikes and parries of their own, the debate confirmed what early polls and political handicappers have been hinting at for weeks: The GOP 2012 nomination fight will likely be a long and bitter two-man duel.
Perry catapulted into Wendesday’s debate with a solid lead in national horserace polls, but his late August entrance into the contest left him with few prior opportunities to introduce himself to Republican voters on friendly terms and no real stage experience. While he was razor sharp in cutting his opponents, especially at the outset of the event, Perry faltered more than once in defending his own record and was left little room to deliver the kind of soft, positive message on which new candidates often rely.
Wasting no time, Romney took a veiled shot at Perry in his first answer, just minutes into the debate. “If I had spent my whole life in government, I wouldn’t be running for President right now,” he said, concluding an answer on economic recovery and implicitly alluding to Perry’s nearly 30-year career in politics. After a little goading from the moderator, he furthered that line of attack.
Perry’s response was swift and harsh: “The fact is, while [Romney] had a good private sector record, his public sector record did not match that,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts.” Romney protested, pointing out that Perry enjoyed Republican majorities in his legislature, and oil and gas-rich lands. Perry returned fire: “Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt.” Romney returned in kind, Perry quibbled and so on.
When the questioning turned to health care and moderators lobbed the softball that is Commonwealth Care — Romney’s Massachusetts reform program that served as the basis for Obama’s national overhaul — Perry had no compunction about swinging hard: “It was a great opportunity for us as a people to see what will not work, and that is an individual mandate in this country,” he said. But while he well-prepared to attack Romney’s record, Perry struggled when asked to defend his own. After a few more shots at Romney, he was pressed on why his state had the highest percentage of uninsured in the nation. Perry’s answer — “Well, bottom line is that we would not have that many people uninsured in the state of Texas if you didn’t have the federal government.” — was absurd on its face: All states deal with the federal government.
Perhaps the highest drama of the evening came when Romney unveiled an entirely new — albeit predicted — attack on Perry. After the Texan repeated his widely reported claims that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie,” Romney absolutely savaged him, simultaneously making the argument that Perry’s position was too extreme for the primary, let alone the general election. “Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security,” Romney said. “Under no circumstances would I ever say by any measure it’s a failure. It is working for millions of Americans, and I’ll keep it working for millions of Americans.”
The rest of the debate performance was largely a sideshow to the main bout. Ron Paul landed several punches on Perry, including a knock on a letter the governor once wrote that seemed to praise Hillary Clinton’s health reform efforts, but Paul expended a lot of time explaining his long-held beliefs to an incredulous Brian Williams. Newt Gingrich played media critic once again and, ever the entrepreneur, offered to write a foreword to Perry’s next book. Jon Huntmsan stood out at times, but pollsters will still likely struggle tomorrow to find any Republican ready to vote for him. Herman Cain was characteristically quirky and forgettable. And Michele Bachmann was hardly on camera at all, brought on only for a few token answers about $2 dollar gas.
Indeed, Wednesday’s debate truly was, as Matt Drudge briefly dubbed it, “The Mitt and Rick Show.” And with half a dozen more scheduled before the end of the year, it was certainly just the first, bloody act.