Perry managed to survive the two-hour event without committing another "oops" moment. Sounding more confident than he has in previous televised appearances, the Texas governor drew positive reaction for his efforts to make Congress a part-time body. He also said he was ready to take on President Barack Obama in a general election debate.
"I'm kinda getting to where I like these debates. As a matter of fact, I hope Obama and I debate a lot, and I'll get there early. We will get it on and we will talk about our differences," Perry said, before reciting one of the more memorable lines of the night before an audience he hopes will give him another look. "I hope I am the Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucuses." (Watch the clip below.)
Paul began the evening arguing for his plan to cut $1 trillion in government spending, but he ended it by fervently defending his anti-interventionist foreign policy views. This included a prolonged verbal exchange with U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who said she considers Iran to be a serious threat to the security of the United States.
Bachmann appeared stunned as Paul warned against believing "war propaganda" that could lead to an armed conflict with Iran.
With his hands raised, an exasperated Paul declared the U.S. had no evidence Iran has nuclear weapons and "we don't need another war!"
Demonstrating why he is far outside mainstream Republican views on defense spending and engagement abroad, Paul also said the war in Iraq was "useless" and "we lost so much." He called for using "diplomacy once in a while."
The libertarian-leaning candidate also dropped other bombshell statements that drew a smattering of applause, as well as some boos, from the audience: "Why do we have to bomb so many countries? And we're totally bankrupt. How are we going to build a military when we have no money?"
The two-hour debate on Fox News featured seven candidates and touched on domestic and foreign policies. Early on, it was clear the frontrunner, Newt Gingrich was getting beaten up by his opponents, mostly for his acceptance of $1.6 million in consulting fees from troubled mortgage lender Freddie Mac. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney avoided placing any $10,000 bets against his opponents.
In their early assessments of the debate, pundits generally praised Perry for his improved performances. However, it may be too late. Perry was largely ignored throughout the evening and was not targeted by other candidates as he was when he first entered the race.
In the post-debate "spin room," former U.S. Marine Captain Dan Moran, speaking on behalf of the Perry campaign, said it worked better for the governor to spend his precious time promoting his own views and not tangling with rivals.
"When people are in a knife fight you kind of want to stay out of that. I think that's what you saw tonight," Moran said.
Meanwhile, Paul is polling well in Iowa and New Hampshire. News reports indicate his grassroots campaign in both states is being propped up by a passionate and loyal base.
"He's polling in the top three," said Gary Howard, a national press secretary for Paul's presidential campaign. He told the Tribune that momentum helped Paul break out of the pack during this latest televised debate. "He's gotten a little bit more (time) than usual. I mean it's more than 89 seconds. There was a couple of debates when he was barely on the screen."
Even if he wins the Iowa caucuses, the idea that Paul could be the Republican nominee remains a hard concept for some to accept. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer characterized Paul's performance as "wacky, and yet impressive at times." Perhaps The New York Times' Nate Silver said it best in this 140-character Tweet: "Ron Paul did lots to help himself with the 15% of the party who already love him. Little for the 85% who don't."
The nationally televised debate comes as Perry begins a bus tour through Iowa, with more than 40 stops planned before New Year’s Day. Perry is already lowering expectations, noting on Fox News on Thursday that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won the Iowa Caucuses in 2008 but failed to secure the nomination.
“You want to win here, but you don’t have to,” Perry told Fox’s Neil Cavuto. Perry said he hoped to finish in the top three in Iowa but would keep soldiering on, through upcoming contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, even if he places fourth.
Perry said the face time with voters will help him in Iowa, where he quipped that people like to "sniff on ya."
Recent polls show Perry coming up a bit as front-running candidate Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, has seen his support erode. In the recent ABC News debate, Gingrich was the target of incessant barbs from his rivals, including top-tier candidate Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who can't seem to break away from the competition.
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