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GOP Debate Recap: Candidates Seek to Draw Lines of Distinction

September 23, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now to the race for the Republican presidential nomination. There are now two leading contenders seeking to draw sharp lines of distinction between each other.

Judy Woodruff brings us highlights from last night’s debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney once again at each other’s throats at last night’s debate, the third time in as many weeks.

The sharpest contrasts of the night came on immigration, health care and Social Security, with Perry forced to defend his criticism of the program tens of millions of seniors are enrolled in.

GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas presidential candidate: Now, it’s not the first time that Mitt has been wrong on some issues before. And the bottom line is, is we never said that we were going to move this back to the states.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney, seeking to gain an advantage on the issue, accused Perry of running away from his own words.

MITT ROMNEY, (R) presidential candidate: There’s a Rick Perry out there that is saying that — and almost to quote, it says that the federal government shouldn’t be in the pension business, that it’s unconstitutional — unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states.

So you better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that.


JUDY WOODRUFF: There were nine candidates on stage in Orlando, the debate hosted by FOX News and Google, in this critical battleground state of Florida.

But most of the attention was on the two front-runners. And Perry’s attempt to paint Romney a flip-flopper on several issues seemed to miss it’s mark.

GOV. RICK PERRY: 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 vs. Wade before he was against vs. — Roe vs. Wade?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Perry also had to defend himself against criticism of his relatively moderate stand on immigration, including a Texas policy granting in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants.

GOV. RICK PERRY: But if you say that we should not educate 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum jumped on that remark.

RICK SANTORUM, (R) presidential candidate: The point is, why are we subsidizing?

Not that they can’t go. They can go. They just have to borrow money, find other sources to be able to go. And why should they be given preferential treatment as an illegal in this country? That’s what we’re saying.


RICK SANTORUM: And so, yes, I would say — I would say that — I would say that he is soft on illegal immigration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At today’s follow-up gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference, also in Orlando, it was Perry’s immigration stance that Romney seized on.

MITT ROMNEY: My friend Gov. Perry said that, if you don’t agree with his position on giving that in-state tuition to illegals, that you don’t have a heart. I think, if you’re opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a heart. It means that you have a heart and a brain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For his part today, a still-feisty Perry urged Republicans to focus not on stage performance, but on core beliefs.

GOV. RICK PERRY: As conservatives, we know that values and vision matter. It’s not who is the slickest candidate or the smoothest debater that we need to elect.


GOV. RICK PERRY: We need to elect the candidate with the best record and the best vision for this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Conservative stalwarts like FreedomWorks chair Dick Armey acknowledged Perry had a tough night, but said there was plenty of time for his fellow Texan to bounce back.

DICK ARMEY, former Republican House majority leader: Everybody can come back from one bad debate. You know, there are going to be a lot of them. And the fact — I think, on things like Social Security and the really serious jobs issues and so forth, he stands on very good, solid ground.

So, the ice that he — that’s gotten thin for him last night, he can restore that. And it isn’t, in fact, the top-priority concerns anyway. So he’s still standing on good ground on the key issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Perry will get his chance as the Republican hopefuls meet again in three weeks, Oct. 11, for a debate in New Hampshire.