Perry Stumbles at Florida GOP Forum as the Early Primary Debate Formula Wears Thin

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Phelan M. Ebenhack-Pool / Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate debate in Orlando, Florida, Sept. 22, 2011.

The highlights of Thursday night’s Fox News/Google debate in Orlando, Florida, were predictable: Carefully aimed questions from the moderators set up the same back-and-forths between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry on Social Security, jobs and health care that have transpired in recent debates. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum were given openings to criticize Perry for his support of in-state college tuition for some illegal immigrants in Texas and a HPV vaccine mandate for teenage girls. Meanwhile, some of the best questions were unsatisfyingly fobbed off on third-tier candidates and opportunities to chart new substantive territory on issues like the European debt crisis, which currently has the global economy on edge, were disappointingly missed altogether. Even the performances of each candidate were familiar.

Romney continued his string of highly polished debate showings on Thursday night. He was quick to fire off quips and comebacks — “Nice try,” he said cheerfully to Perry a few times before launching into well-greased refutations. “I spent four years as governor — I didn’t inhale,” he joked of his time in office in Blue Massachusetts. And his responses were often direct and specific. Piling onto Perry for subsidizing college for some undocumented immigrants, Romney cited the exact dollar difference between in-state and out-of-state charges for the University of Texas. His only notable blunder came when he said, “There are lots of reasons not to elect me,” a minor gaffe in the scope of the evening, but one that could haunt him later if it’s spliced into the right TV ad.

Perry, meanwhile, held his ground in the first half of the debate before severely faltering down the stretch run as he has in past debates. He stumbled over words, jumbled sentences and even whiffed on a gimmee opportunity to attack Romney for bald political expediency. In response to a tough question about what to do if Pakistan lost control of its nuclear arsenal, he haltingly belabored a point about not currently having “those allies in that region” to act in the “Pakistani country.” Even with simple questions, Perry tripped on his own tongue. When asked which candidate on stage would make the best running mate, he laughed awkwardly and suggested, “If you could take Herman Cain and mate him up with Newt Gingrich….”

Despite the fact that Thursday night was perhaps Perry’s worst — and Romney’s best — debate performance to date, many of their exchanges felt stale. Early on, when presented with the now pro forma request to defend his past statements on Social Security, Perry began with more reassuring words for seniors, pledging a “solemn oath” to current beneficiaries and those near retirement that “they don’t have anything in the world to worry about,” before speaking vaguely about the need for “options” to change the program in the long-run. Romney was then given the obligatory opportunity to attack him for it, which he naturally took, accusing Perry of flip-flopping on what he wrote in his book. Perry, indignant, decided to cut straight to the part where he would be invited to attack Romney for passing a health insurance mandate in Massachusetts and, “speaking of not getting it straight in your books, sir,” accused Romney of scrubbing a line in different editions of his most recent published work. When moderators posed a question on the all-important economy, Perry bragged of Texas job creation, as he is wont to do, Romney talked up his private sector bona fides while savaging Obama, and every candidate pledged to lower taxes and regulatory burdens a thousand different ways. Yet there wasn’t a peep about plunging financial markets, Greek default fears or how these candidates might handle such a crisis from the Oval Office.

Not every minute was predictable. When the candidates were asked about the federal role in education policy, Perry and Romney had a genuinely novel exchange, albeit between familiarly uniform calls to shift responsibility to the local level. The Texas governor opened up a new line of attack on Romney for praising the Obama administration’s competitive grant program Race to the Top, and though he quibbled with the characterization, Romney offered unqualified praise for Education Secretary Arne Duncan. There was a new face present in libertarian Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, but his only memorable moment came when he deadpanned a line about the number of “shovel-ready projects” created by the administration vs. those created by his neighbor’s dogs.

There were some tough and timely questions leveled at the dais from the Fox News crew, especially those from YouTube users. The most arresting audience moment of Thursday’s debate — perhaps even eclipsing the now infamous cheers that accompanied a mention of Perry’s record number of executions in a prior forum– was the chorus of loud boos that greeted an active duty soldier in Iraq who asked, by remote video, whether the candidates would reinstate Don’t Ask Don’t Tell if elected. A college student with a medical condition asked if the candidates would repeal the portion of Obama’s health care law that allows children to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26. But the soldier’s question was directed to Rick Santorum, who has a well-established stances against gay rights and almost no chance of ever being commander-in-chief. The insurance question was relegated to Jon Huntsman, who has similarly long odds of ever being faced with such a choice and who sidestepped the issue anyway.

That’s not to say that those candidates, or any others, should be ignored. Johnson has been excluded from debates on narrow pretense all year. No other candidate has Ron Paul’s capacity to bring a GOP debate audience to its feet and in the next moment, force it into uncomfortable silence. For the second time in as many weeks, Bachmann suffered through a debate with no more than a few fleeting moments of camera time. Newt Gingrich’s surly anti-media point-scoring seems to have bolstered his standing, and Rick Santorum continues to forcefully and effectively attack the frontrunners, even if he’s not breaking through himself. But the Republican Presidential Primary is still shaping up to the Romney and Perry show, and the familiar early primary debate schtick is wearing thin.