Perry Experiences the Full Force of His Rivals’ Wrath

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Win McNamee / Getty Images

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 12: Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney (L) and Gov. Rick Perry during a debate sponsored by CNN and The Tea Party Express at the Florida State fairgrounds on September 12, 2011 in Tampa, Florida. The debate featured the eight candidates ten days before the Florida straw poll. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Firmly entrenched as the double-digit front-runner for the Republican President nomination, Texas Governor Rick Perry endured the unpleasant privilege of his status on Monday night. Over two grueling hours at the CNN/Tea Party debate, his primary rivals pecked and clawed at his record, drawing blood on everything from Social Security reform to immigration policy.

Perry began the debate with a continuation of his recent recalibration on Social Security. He prefaced his first answer with a few words to reassure seniors and rebutt his detractors’ claims of scaremongering. “The people who are on Social Security today need to understand something,” he said. “Slam-dunk guaranteed, that program is going to be there in place for those individuals.” But he stuck with the phrase “Ponzi scheme” nonetheless and chief rival Mitt Romney, as he has since the last debate, let him have it. “The question is, do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program as you did six months ago when your book came out and returned to the states or do you want to retreat from that?” he interjected at one point, shortly before calling Perry’s views “frightening.” Huntsman used the same word in his own response.

When it came time to compare economic records, Romney paid lip service to Perry’s jobs boomlet in Texas, but quickly noted that his rival enjoyed the advantages of low taxes and light regulation, restricted unions, rich natural resources and a friendly legislature. “I think Governor Perry would agree with me that if you’re dealt four aces that doesn’t make you necessarily a great poker player,” he said. (“Mitt you were doing pretty good until you got to talking poker,” Perry fired back.) Given the opportunity, fellow Texan Ron Paul gleefully piled on. “170,000 of the jobs were government jobs.” he noted. “But I don’t want to offend the governor, because he might raise my taxes or something.”

The group attacks only escalated when the candidates were asked to weigh Perry’s now-regretted executive order mandating Gardasil, the HPV vaccine, to Texas girls 6th grade and up. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann slashed first. “I’m a mom of three children,” she said. “And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong.” When Perry defended himself, Bachmann pointed out that the company behind the vaccine was a political donor. And when he tried to brush that off — ” I raise about $30 million, and if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended” — Bachmann only twisted the knife: I’m offended for all the little girls and the parents that didn’t have a choice. That’s what I’m offended for,” she said. Unprompted, former Senator Rick Santorum joined in with his own diatribe denouncing Perry’s actions.

Even the heat and light of that exchange paled in comparison to the exchange on immigration in the waning minutes of the debate.” Unlike Governor Perry…,” Santorum began his treatise on border security. Things only got worse when Perry got a chance to speak — he drew a smattering of boos from the audience when he responded to a question about a Texas program that allowed for some illegal immigrants to receive in-state college tuition. Bachmann didn’t miss a step. “I think that the American way is not to give taxpayer subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws or who are here in the United States illegally,” she said to thunderous applause.

Perry, meanwhile, falteringly tried to defend the iniative as a “states right issue,” but to no avail. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman hardly had time to tag Perry’s border security plan as “treasonous” before Romney was in the fray, bludgeoning Perry with both hands. “Of course we build a fence and of course we do not give instate tuition credits to people who come here illegally,” he said, in what might have been his biggest applause line of the night. “That only attracts people to come here and take advantage of America’s great beneficence.”

The rest of the debate was merely ancillary to the great Perry pile-on. Romney’s performance was polished. Despite drawing his share of attacks, he was consistently ready with a comeback or policy prescription, and managed to stick to his positive, entrprenurial economic message for whatever parts of the debate weren’t spent savaging Perry. The Texas governor limped along as best he could, but the newest entrant into the race continued to come off as ill-prepared for the barrage against him.

Bachmann was at her best on the attack, but too often fell back on tired rants against “ObamaCare” when given the opportunity to toot her own horn. While Ron Paul seemed to have repressed his tendency to revert to Austrian monetary policy in every answer (he got in a Ludwig Von Mises plug nonetheless), he met the Tea Party boo birds when he tried to explain how American foreign policy caused radical Islamic terrorism. Neither Bachmann or Paul did anything to break out of the second tier.

As for the others: Huntsman was schizophrenic, one moment calling for an end to “the drama” of the debate, and accusing Perry of treason in the next. The latter may have been a lighthearted reference to Perry’s views on monetary policy, but if it was, just like his bizarre reference to Kurt Cobain, no one got it. The only painfully apparent joke on Monday night was his candidacy. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, was his usual blustery, professorial self, though he managed to make it through the debate without reprimanding the moderator. Along with Santorum and pizza magnate Herman Cain, Gingrich got plenty of camera time and never really stumbled, but the trio remain hopeless long-shots  in the race.

Of course, that doesn’t mean they have no role to play. Monday night made perfectly  clear that Perry’s path to the nomination will be a gantlet: a series of punishing ordeals at the hands of his rivals, who have no interest in letting the Republican crown go without a fight.