If I were advising his debate opponents, I would say, "Be very careful if and how you attack Perry on Social Security." Though he did it a bit awkwardly, Perry has underlined a huge concern that strikes many Republicans as authentic and true. Those are two values in great demand in this election cycle. It could be like the old story of Br’er Rabbit. Perry says, “Oh please, please, don’t throw me in the briar patch.” And in the end, he comes out ahead, while the Washington pundits and campaign operatives come away shaking their heads asking, “How did that happen?”
Perry went to some lengths to soften some of his previous remarks. In his opening words on the topic, he sought to assure those who are receiving Social Security and those who are close to retirement. He promised a “slam-dunk guarantee” that neither group would see its benefits cut. But for younger workers, he said it is essential for the country to face the program’s financial problems.
Romney pressed him. “Do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program as you did six months ago, when your book came out, and returned to the states or do you want to retreat from that?”
“I think we ought to have a conversation,” Perry interjected.
“We’re having that right now, Governor. We’re running for president,” Romney said.
Perry said that Romney, in his book, had said that the Social Security system’s financing would be criminal if it had been done in the private sector. Romney took issue with that. “You said it’s criminal,” he responded. “What I said was Congress taking money out of the Social Security trust fund is like criminal and that is and it’s wrong.”
The exchange over Social Security went to the heart of one of the important arguments between the two candidates, with Romney trying to make the case that what Perry has said and particularly what he has written could disqualify him in a general election. But it wasn’t clear, given the audience’s reaction, whether Perry is on such shaky ground on the issue.
Instead it was the fire Perry took from the right at the CNN-Tea Party Express debate that suddenly seemed more threatening to the Texas governor’s chances than Romney.
Perry was sharply criticized by Michele Bachmann for his support of vaccinating girls against HPV and whether he did so as a favor to an aide-turned-lobbyist and a pharmaceutical firm; he was hit by Rick Santorum for his opposition to a border fence and backing of Texas legislation to give the children of illegal immigrants in-state college tuition; and he was dinged by Ron Paul over whether taxes have gone up in Texas.
Taken together, few issues resonate as much with conservative base at the moment as culture, cronyism, American identity and fiscal purity. And Perry was forced on the defensive over each of them in Tampa.
Byron York writes at The Washington Examiner:
When it was over, Perry had not been knocked out, but he was definitely wobbly on his feet...He was at times hesitant, forced off his game by Romney, Bachmann, Paul, and Santorum, and perhaps in need of more preparation. It's likely he'll do a little more studying for the next debate, presented by Fox News, on September 22.
At The Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes calls a winner:
If a debate more than four months before the first vote is cast can influence the outcome of a presidential nomination race, the debate last night among eight Republicans should aid Mitt Romney’s candidacy. Seldom has there been as clear a winner.Romney was crisp and succinct, prepared and focused, and aggressive in going after his chief rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Texas governor Rick Perry, when he needed to be. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, showed once again that he’s a far better candidate now than he was four years ago.
He did well in these instances, among others: spelling out the differences between the health care plan he championed in Massachusetts and Obamacare; explaining the problem with the Fair Tax is that it gives short shrift to the middle class; pointing out the built-in advantages Perry has in Texas in governing successfully; and refraining from boasting, except to say that “if America needs a turnaround, that’s what I do.”