Perry, Romney Spar at Debate; Race for Nomination Becomes More Defined

BY Jenny Marder  September 8, 2011 at 8:32 AM EST

Mitt Romney and Rick Perry; photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Mitt Romney listens to Texas Gov. Rick Perry at Wednesday night’s Republican debate. Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

It is far more often the case than not that hyped political events don’t live up to expectations, but Wednesday night’s GOP debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., was the exception that proves the rule.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the front-running Republican presidential candidate making his debate debut, was in the hot seat for nearly two hours, receiving the most pointed questions about his record and positions and taking the most incoming from his opponents on the stage.

“I kind of feel like the pinata here at the party,” Perry said about halfway through.

Perry had a very simple mission: He needed to prove that he can withstand the scrutiny and the attacks, that he is tough enough to give as good as he gets, and that he is a viable general election candidate who can appeal to a broad swath of Americans and defeat President Obama in 2012.

On the first two fronts, Perry clearly passed the test. He didn’t buckle and seemed to relish the engagement with his opponents, specifically former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

It was the third component of his mission where he may have run into some trouble and where Romney’s campaign hopes to create an opening.

Perry and Romney directly engaged each other over their job creation and health care records very early on in the debate.

“States are different. Texas is a great state,” Romney said. “Texas has zero income tax. Texas has a right-to-work state, a Republican legislature, a Republican Supreme Court. Texas has a lot of oil and gas in the ground. Those are wonderful things, but Gov. 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,” he jibed.

Perry immediately jumped in with a retort tying Romney to another defeated liberal.

“Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” Perry said.

Romney replied, “Well, as a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, governor.”

And the evening flowed from there.

Perhaps the most illustrative exchange that will likely help define the Perry/Romney divide going forward was when Perry was probed about his calling Social Security a failure and a Ponzi scheme.

“It is a monstrous lie,” Perry said. “It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, you’re paying into a program that’s going to be there. Anybody that’s for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it’s not right.”

Romney saw opportunity in those remarks.

“The issue in the book, ‘Fed Up,’ governor, is you say that by any measure, Social Security is a failure. You can’t say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security and those who have lived on it,” Romney said.

“The governor says look, states ought to be able to opt out of Social Security. Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security,” Romney added.

With the two-man race between Perry and Romney on stark display, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann struggled to remain a player at the debate. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman made strides to be a bigger part of the conversation than at his first debate and once again challenged Perry about his refusal to accept scientific consensus that humans have contributed to climate change.

Not only did Perry choose not to re-frame some of his more controversial past statements and positions into a more palatable form for a national audience, he decidedly doubled-down.

“The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet, to me, is just nonsense…. Just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell,” Perry said.

As the Perry-Romney contest moves ahead to four more debates over the next four weeks, you can certainly expect to see Romney press his image as the Republican candidate most able to appeal to independents and go toe-to-toe with President Obama in a general election.

For his part, Perry will be challenged to maintain his leading position while refusing to allow Romney to paint him as outside the mainstream on as politically potent an issue as Social Security.

Debate must-reads:

The New York Times

POLITICO

The Washington Post

THE PRESIDENT’S SPEECH

President Obama will have the political stage to himself Thursday night when he goes before a joint session of Congress and lays out his plan to spur job creation.

It is a moment that will require the president to call on his skills as an orator — as he has done at key junctures in the past — if he is to be successful at making the case for his vision at a time when the unemployment rate is stuck above 9 percent and polls show six in 10 Americans unhappy with his stewardship of the economy.

Some of the president’s most effective speeches have come when his campaign or the country have faced uncertain times.

During the spring of 2008, in the midst of a hard-fought Democratic primary campaign, Mr. Obama delivered a speech on race relations in America, which for the most part ended the controversy surrounding incendiary comments by his former pastor.

This past January, in the aftermath of the shooting rampage in Tucson, Ariz., that left six dead and a dozen more wounded — including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — the president called for greater civility in the country’s political discourse.

Those subjects, deeply personal and emotional, lend themselves to impassioned speeches that move listeners, but often do not require any specific action be taken. The difficult task for President Obama on Thursday evening is to bring that same passion to issues such as payroll tax cuts, aid to state and local governments and infrastructure spending — and to convince skeptical lawmakers in both parties that his prescriptions are the right ones to get the economy moving again.

Making the morning talk show rounds Thursday, White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley said the president would formally introduce the American Jobs Act next week and indicated that its initiatives would be paid for. Daley also urged members of Congress, just back from a five-week summer recess, to “do something and not say no to everything.”

A few details of the plan have emerged in recent days, including the projected price tag — $300 billion — and the aforementioned payroll tax cut extension and money for rehabilitating roads, bridges and schools.

The top Republicans in the House — Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor — sent the president a letter earlier this week noting some areas of common ground, including construction projects and free trade agreements.

The GOP leaders had also requested a meeting in advance of Thursday’s speech, but with no such session listed on the president’s public schedule, it appears they, like the rest of the country, will have to wait for 7 p.m. ET to hear the full scope of what President Obama is proposing.

THE SPENDING DEBATE RAGES ON

After five weeks away from Washington, lawmakers returned this week and picked up right where they left off — debating how the federal government should spend its money.

Instead of raising the debt ceiling, the issue this time is whether disaster relief — and specifically the costs of damage from Hurricane Irene — should be offset.

Robert Pear of the New York Times looks at the growing dispute between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.:

“Mr. Reid said he would ‘bring a free-standing bill’ to the Senate floor to provide at least $6 billion in disaster assistance without waiting for the usual vehicle, an appropriations bill for the Department of Homeland Security. The money would help victims of disasters around the country, including hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and wildfires. Mr. Reid’s move could force Republicans, who have been clamoring for spending cuts, into an awkward position: having to vote for or against the disaster assistance. The money is provided through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a unit of the Homeland Security Department.

“Some Republicans, while supporting disaster assistance, have said that at least some of the cost should be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. Republicans from New York and other states battered by Hurricane Irene have objected to such a requirement. On Wednesday, Mr. Cantor tried to clarify views that he expressed in a television interview last week. ‘I am not for holding up any money,’ Mr. Cantor said. ‘I am not for taking any hostages here. I just think we can act responsibly.’”

ON THE TRAIL

All events listed in Eastern Time.

  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry attends an Orange County Republican party meet and greet in Cornona del Mar, Calif., at 2 p.m.

  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich holds a town hall in Henniker, N.H., at 7:30 p.m.

For all future events, be sure to check out the NewsHour’s political calendar.

For more political coverage, visit our politics page.

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