The battle between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry explodes at the GOP presidential debate.
Going into Rick Perry's first presidential debate the question was whether he would play it safe or shoot from the hip. He did neither. He used both hands and took careful aim. He went after Mitt Romney for his jobs record, Ron Paul for his lack of support for Ronald Reagan, Karl Rove for being over the top, Dick Cheney for defending the bankrupt Social Security system, and President Obama for being everything from a big-government meddler to an "abject liar."
The Republican race has suddenly gotten intense and exciting. Tonight's debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., revealed disagreements—some ideological, some personal—about how to fix health care, the talents required to revive the economy, and the best way to transform Social Security. Throughout, the candidates debated which attributes—candor, restraint, or reason—make the best conservative leader and whether such a leader could get elected in a general election.
Perry kept shooting, sometimes hitting his targets and sometimes missing. For a first debate performance, he did pretty well, but that doesn't count for much. He's the front-runner, which means he was expected to be on top from the very first question. He clearly came prepared not just to offer his smaller-government pitch but also to deliver opposition research about his opponents. Almost immediately, the debate turned into a fracas between Romney and Perry over their jobs records. "Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt," Perry said. His defense of his doubts about global warming and the death penalty in Texas will delight conservatives. (When Brian Williams of NBC mentioned that 234 people had been executed in Texas, the audience applauded—which they did not do when Perry credited Obama with ordering the operation to kill Bin Laden.)
Voters looking for a strong, tell-it-like-it-is candidate saw plenty to like in Perry. There were clumps of flour in the batter though. He may have set himself up for long-term problems with his position on Social Security. Asked about his claim in his book that the program was all but unconstitutional and a Ponzi scheme, he both ducked and doubled down. He shifted away from his writings by arguing that the Ponzi scheme is merely the current state of the system, but he also reiterated the "ponzi scheme characterization" and said that the program was a "monstrous lie," arguing that truth-telling was a job requirement: "Maybe it's time to have some provocative language in this country."
Romney didn't let that pass, saying that such language would help Obama get re-elected. Romney said he wouldn't say such a thing about Social Security, because Americans depend on the program—by which he meant, Voters of Florida, please elect me. Afterward, Romney's top strategist, Stuart Stevens, made it clear their campaign hope to make Perry eat those remarks morning, noon, and night. "It's disqualifying," he said of Perry's remarks. "No one can get elected in a general election saying that about Social Security." Jon Huntsman also hinted about Perry's electability, arguing that his positions on global warming and evolution would make him a toxic general-election candidate unable to win independent voters. "By making comments that basically don't reflect the reality of the situation, we turn people off."
Mitt Romney had survived the first few debates by standing in place. Today he came with new tactics. He joined the jobs battle pointing out with some specificity why Perry's Republican legislature and Supreme Court and an energy boom make it easier for him to govern. "Those are wonderful things, but Governor Perry doesn't believe that he created those things. If he tried to say that, well, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet."
Romney was strongest when making the case for his own private-sector résumé. Romney highlighted his skills as a turnaround expert (where have I heard that before?) and explained why that was different than being a "career politician."
Romney also showed the benefits of having run for president before. When Perry was on the defensive for signing an executive order requiring young girls to get inoculated against HPV, Romney let him off the hook. He said he assumed Perry's "heart was in the right place." He then turned to attack Obama. It showed discipline, generosity, and élan gained from experience.
What of Michele Bachmann and the others on stage? They aren't going to get the nomination. That doesn't mean they can't shape the race or contribute ideas, but with three governors running—all of whom have strong leadership credentials—the GOP is not going to replace a president with no executive experience with someone like Bachmann, who has almost none.
Which brings us to that third governor, Huntsman. He came alive in this debate. He argued that his jobs record was better than either Romney or Perry and that he had put in place a better health care plan in Utah than either Massachusetts or Texas. He was far more compelling on the debate stage than he was last debate, but he still has to find a way to break into the major grapple going on between Romney and Perry.
Early in the evening Newt Gingrich complained when the moderators tried to get him to engage in the debate over whether Romney or Perry has a better health care record. "I'm frankly not interested in your efforts to get Republicans fighting each other," Gingrich said. "Whoever the nominee is, we're all for defeating Barack Obama." That's a shame, because Gingrich has interesting views on health care, and it would have been useful to air them. There are four more debates in the next six weeks. Let's hope that Gingrich's opponents, like the voters, don't listen to him and continue to actually debate each other.
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John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his series on the presidency and his series on risk. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, and Rick Perry by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.