Perry Takes Fire From Opponents in First GOP Debate

Texas Gov. Rick Perry took shots from all directions in his first nationally televised debate Wednesday night, as his opponents unloaded on the presidential front-runner again and again, seeking relevance in a line of questioning that largely centered around Perry.

He took hits on his stance on illegal immigration, his executive order requiring young girls to get vaccinated against HPV and his insistence that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme.” His 2010 book Fed Up!, an attack on the federal government, was effectively the ninth member of the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. The longtime Texas governor, who prepared for the debate by issuing statements attacking two of his opponents, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, at one point joked that he felt “like the piñata here at the party.”  

“He was the new man on the block and it was the first time he had a chance to answer questions and they gave him their best shot,” said Dave Carney, Perry’s chief political strategist. “The governor withstood the onslaught and did well.”

The first hour of the debate was largely the Perry-Romney show. Romney, who until Wednesday night had rarely criticized Perry directly, aggressively went after him in the debate’s first hour. He suggested Perry was a career politician who didn’t have the chops for Washington, and he attributed Perry’s record of job creation not to his skill, but to the fact that Texas has no state income tax, is a right-to-work state, is rich in oil and gas resources and has a majority-Republican Legislature.

“It would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet,” Romney said, a clear jab at Perry’s support, back in his Democratic years, for Gore’s 1988 presidential bid.

Perry fired back that Romney had one of the “lowest job creation rates in the country” as Massachusetts governor. “We created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts,” Perry said. And the Texas governor threw in his own zinger, saying former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, a Democrat, “created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt.” 

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Despite Romney’s vow that, as president, he would grant any state that wanted a waiver from President Barack Obama’s federal health reform, Perry still took the opportunity to lambaste Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan, which forces individuals to carry health insurance. Perry suggested that states should have control over Medicaid, the joint state-federal health insurance provider for poor children and some impoverished adults. But he was careful not to utter the word “Medicare” — the federal health provider for seniors, a key voting block.

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul did his part to break up the Perry vs. Romney banter — and, as a physician, was none too pleased about being left out of the health care debate. “There’s eight of us up here,” he said, speaking for the other presidential candidates largely relegated to the sidelines in the first half of the debate.

Paul talked about eliminating the minimum wage. He spoke of TSA agents groping travelers, saying, “sometimes they’re accused of all kinds of sexual activities on the way they maul people at the airport.” Then he took Perry on directly, saying that Perry had written a letter supporting Hillary Clinton’s health care plan in the 1990s. At the mention of the word “letter,” Perry’s ears appeared to prick up. He quickly attacked Paul — debating inside the Reagan Library — for writing his own letter in the 1980s suggesting he was leaving the Republican Party because he was disillusioned with it and with Ronald Reagan.

Though his campaign has been more cautious in its references toward Social Security in recent weeks, Perry didn’t mince words on Wednesday night, calling it a “Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie to our kids.” When a moderator mentioned that both Republican strategist Karl Rove and former Vice President Dick Cheney had questioned Perry’s rhetoric, Perry fired back: “Karl has been over the top for a long time in some of his remarks, so I’m not responsible for Karl anymore.” (Jordan Berry, an Austin-based Republican consultant, said the comment may actually serve Perry well: “It lets people know, ‘Hey, this isn’t Team Bush, so don’t try and compare me to Team Bush,’” he said.)

Stuart Stevens, a senior adviser to Romney, said he thought the moment Perry’s wheels came off during Wednesday debate was when he tore into Social Security. “Every House candidate that runs, every Senate candidate that runs, would have to run on the Perry plan to kill Social Security,” Stevens said. “We might as well just admit right now that Nancy Pelosi is going to become speaker again and the Senate we’ll never get.”

But Ray Sullivan, Perry’s communications director, had a far different take: “It’s a dire time in this country,” he said. “Sometimes it takes strong language to wake folks up."

Perry took the biggest beating of the night on Gardasil, the HPV vaccine he ordered for adolescent girls but was forced to retreat from after state lawmakers overruled him. Paul, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum all jumped on the bandwagon. Perry, conceding it was a mistake, said he will “always err on the side of saving lives.” And Romney, in a rare alliance, came to Perry’s defense, saying, “we’ve each taken a mulligan or two.”

When the line of questioning turned to immigration, Romney didn’t name names. But he said the country ought to have a border fence. (Perry opposes it.) He said so-called “sanctuary cities” should be banned. (Despite Perry’s support for the measure last legislative session, lawmakers didn’t pass it — largely because of opposition from some of the same big-business Republicans who have contributed to the governor’s campaigns.) And Romney decried states that give tuition breaks to the children of illegal immigrants, which Perry has long endorsed.

Perry’s confidence seemed to waver only once during the two-hour debate, when he faced questions about global warming and evolution, and when former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman suggested that Republican candidates were running “from science.”

“The science is not settled,” Perry said of global warming, choosing his words slowly and carefully. “The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at jeopardy based on a scientific theory that’s not settled yet, to me is … nonsense.”

Berry, the Republican consultant, said Perry was the debate’s clear winner, despite the fact that he spent much of the night forced to play defense. “The front-runner always has arrows in their back,” he said. Austin-based Democratic consultant Harold Cook said both Perry and Romney held their own, and remained the two to beat. He called the debate “one of the liveliest in a presidential race I’ve seen, maybe ever.” 

Reeve Hamilton and Morgan Smith contributed to this story. 

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