The Republican presidential debate in Orlando was sponsored by Google, but it was Gov. Rick Perry who was searching. The frontrunner's answers meandered. When fielding a hypothetical question about terrorists getting nukes in Pakistan, his response ribboned out like he was reading the first search results to come up. Even when he read his attack lines on rival Mitt Romney from the notes on his lectern, it was muddy. This was Perry's third debate this campaign; with each successive one, his performance gets worse.
The race between the Republican frontrunners has been between electability and authenticity. "Paint Creek" Perry is one of you—he prays, he speaks plainly, he's from a small town in Texas—and Moneybags Mitt ain't. Romney's pitch: He can beat President Obama, whereas Perry is too reckless. At the debate, Perry not only failed to make the case about Romney's essential phoniness, he turned the weapon on himself (Perry-kiri?), creating several self-inflicted wounds to the heart of his authenticity pitch.
The first wound came at the start. Romney and Perry got into a pushy book club debate, pointing to what the other had or had not written in their books and what lines each was pretending they'd never written at all. Romney continued his assault on Perry's plan for letting the states run Social Security. Perry said he'd never suggested that for the larger Social Security system, but merely for state employees. This isn't so. He was talking about the larger program not just in his book, but also since the book was published and since this campaign started.
Perry has made his comments on Social Security a symbol of how candid and authentic he is. At the last debate, he ducked the question of returning the retirement program to the states. For this debate, he constructed a diversion—a net reduction in honesty from his previous (less than straightforward) position. "There's a Rick Perry out there that's saying the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business," Romney said. "You better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that."
Perry evacuated the topic and sprinted for safer ground. He pointed out that Romney had changed the wording on health care in his book in between the hardcover and paperback editions. The changes were made to remove any suggestions that Romney once favored making his Massachusetts plan a national plan. It seemed like a good line of attack, aiming at people's doubts about Romney's core, but he got tangled. He tried again later to raise Romney's position changes, but instead of showing an instinct for the jugular, he became a word juggler:
I think Americans just don't know sometimes which Mitt Romney they're dealing with. 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 Roe v. Wade? He was for Race to the Top, he's for Obamacare, and now he's against it. I mean, we'll wait until tomorrow and—and—and see which Mitt Romney we're really talking to tonight.
Romney, whose answers were crisp and commanding throughout the night, showed again the benefit of having run before. He turned around the attacks on his record as a shape-shifter and made himself seem resolute. "My positions are laid out in that book. I stand by them. Governor Perry, you wrote a book six months ago. You're already retreating from the positions that were in that book."
The second problem for Perry came when defending himself against his executive order requiring sixth grade girls receive the HPV vaccine. He said he had been lobbied on the issue by a 31-year-old woman dying of cervical cancer. It was a rhetorical island of success in the stormy weather. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer singled it out as the governor's best moment. But Perry has a problem. He met with the woman after he made the decision to put the executive order in place. So it couldn't have influenced his decision, as he suggested in the debate.
The final problem for Perry came at another defensive moment. Talking about his decision to allow the children of undocumented workers to get cheaper in-state tuition, he said anyone who says the state should not educate these children "who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart."
Did you mean: I don't think you have a heart problem?
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