— SIMI VALLEY, Calif. - In his first national debate as a presidential candidate, Rick Perry proved he can brawl — and look amiable doing it.
The late-starting Texas governor, who in just a few weeks has soared to a 15-point lead over his nearest rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney, came well-prepared for Wednesday night’s debate, ready to fire back at his rivals for the GOP nomination.
Perry accused Mitt Romney of not matching former Massachusetts and 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis as a job creator.
Grinning gleefully, Perry also took on fellow Texan Rep. Ron Paul who’d criticized him for sending a letter early in the Clinton administration to then First Lady Hillary Clinton praising her efforts to reform the nation’s health care system.
“We had no idea it was going to be the monstrosity that's known as Hillary-care,” Perry explained, then added to Paul, “Speaking of letters, I was more interested in the one you wrote to Ronald Reagan saying 'I'm going to quit the party because of the things you believe in.'”
For Republican activists shopping for a presidential candidate, the debate among eight GOP contenders answered two questions: did Perry live up to his advance billing?
By most standards, he did — proving he was an aggressive, sure-footed contender.
Who played Reagan role?
And second, since the debate took place at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., amid mementos of the 40th president, which one of the GOP hopefuls was most adept at recreating Reagan’s genial conservatism?
The answer to that highly unfair question can't be answered in an evening but what is clear about this Republican primary contest is the energy driving it — and propelling a candidate like Perry to front-runner status — has a Reagan Revolution quality to it.
Romney made a claim for that Reagan title, and Perry grinned throughout the debate but turned a bit tense and stumbled when explaining his position that global climate change isn’t necessarily man-made.
He also seemed to struggle in explaining why he cut funding for public education and why high school graduation rates in his state are so low, saying, “When you share the border with Mexico ... we have a unique situation in our state” – it seemed an answer calculated to try not to offend Latino voters.
Perry also seemed to want a make a point about not backing away from tough rhetoric, referring to cutting federal spending as “getting the snake’s head cut off” and explaining his strong words on Social Security as “a Ponzi scheme” by saying, “Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country.”
And for Republicans who despise President Barack Obama he had this: On the issue of border security, Obama either was getting faulty intelligence data or “he was an abject liar to the American people.”
Perry came under furious attack from Paul, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and Rep. Michele Bachmann for signing an executive order – which he explained had an opt-out clause – requiring teenage girls to receive a Gardasil inoculation against the HPV virus that causes cervical cancer.
Romney praises Perry
But Romney sighed and seemed to be in a forgiving mood: Perry, he explained, “wanted very badly to provide better health care to his kids and prevent the spread of cancer. I agree with those who said he went about in the wrong way, but his heart was in the right place,” he said, perhaps expecting similar forgiveness for his individual health insurance mandate in Massachusetts.
And for the most part, with the exception of criticizing Perry’s stance on Social Security, Romney remained mild and mellow, trying to make his point early in the debate with gentle humor: Romney said that if Perry claimed credit for Texas’s job creation and its built-in economic advantages – lots of oil and gas, no income tax and a Republican Supreme Court – he’d be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.
And Romney essentially left Perry unidentified when he criticized states that offer tuition to illegal immigrant young people. Perry signed such a law in Texas – but a viewer of the debate would never know that from hearing Romney.
Attacking in the spin room
But Romney’s spokesman more than made up for any mildness on their candidate’s part in the post-debate spin room, repeatedly hammering Perry for his criticism of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.”
Perry said during the debate anyone wanting to overhaul Social Security “is probably going to have a difficult time” and that current retirees or near-retirees “don’t need to worry” that reform would cut their benefits.
Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom told reporters, “Rick Perry badly damaged his candidacy by taking the position that we should abolish Social Security as a federal entitlement …. There is no way that the Republican Party can be successful with a nominee who wants to dismantle Social Security. I’m not aware of any candidate from any political party who has won political office with that position.”
And Romney campaign strategist Stuart Stevens told reporters, Perry “thinks it should be a state program, that the federal government should get out of the Social Security business. I just think that that’s a position that’s fair, I think he argues it well, it’s just a position the vast majority of Americans don’t have.”
Asked in the post-debate spin room when Perry would offer his plan to revamp Social Security so that younger Americans would not be faced with what Perry called “a monstrous lie” of promised benefits not being there when they retire, Perry’s campaign manager Rob Johnson said, “When we’re ready to lay out platforms we’ll do it at the appropriate time,” but he did not say when that time would be.
The task for the GOP contenders Wednesday night wasn’t merely to seem like Reagan, but to tap that reservoir of passionate commitment that Reagan's followers had, the fire that motivates people to go door-to-door and spend hours making phone calls to voters for their candidate
The Obama-era Republican grassroots activists may be labeled “Tea Party” but they’re in fact traditional Barry Goldwater-Ronald Reagan Republicans, people who would have felt right at home in the Goldwater 1964 campaign or the Reagan 1976 and 1980 campaigns.
They’re fired up by the very same creed that Reagan preached 30 years ago in his first inaugural address: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Speaking for Bachmann’s campaign in the spin room, veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who once worked for Reagan, said, “Romney had a better night tonight than he has had in the last couple” of debates.
Asked about Romney’s apparent mellowness and his not pressing harder in attacking Perry, Rollins, who has been watching presidential debates for decades, said “These same eight people are going to be on stage every week for the next three or four weeks so you know there’s plenty of time to get it on if that’s what you’re going to do.”