Gov. Rick Perry headed into his third Republican presidential debate with a lot to prove. He left with a mixed bag.
Compared with previous efforts, he had better-rehearsed counterpoints to some of his biggest vulnerabilities, like his decision to make the HPV vaccine mandatory, and to authorize in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. And he'd prepared some key attacks, on his lead opponent Mitt Romney's apparent support for Race to the Top, President Obama's competition for public education funding, and on the former Massachusetts governor's state health insurance mandate, nicknamed "Romneycare."
But he continued to show that debates are not his strong suit, stumbling verbally, pausing at strange times and becoming repeatedly tongue-twisted in his answers. And while he and Romney consistently tried to paint each other as flip-floppers, copying each other's lines on having double identities, Perry seemed caught in the headlights on questions on Texas' poor rate of health insurance and his purportedly icy relationship with former President George W. Bush.
Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney adviser, called Perry "unprepared to lead."
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"Some of his answers to questions were rambling and incoherent," Fehrnstrom said. "He was asked a question about how he would handle a 3 a.m. phone call about a nuclear weapon emergency in Pakistan and he was talking about selling planes to India. It was completely unintelligible."
But Perry spokesman Mark Miner said the Texas governors attacks on Romney were right on.
Romney "has a serious track record of taking multiple positions on the same issue," Miner said. "...Mitt Romney seems very uncomfortable in a Republican primary and that was on display here tonight."
Perry's strongest lines of the night surfaced in areas he was prepared for. When he was attacked for offering in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants, Perry started by explaining at length his work to secure the border, then accused opponents of "having no heart" for wanting to keep kids who had ended up in Texas through no fault of their own away from an education. He said in no uncertain terms that he still stood by his decision. He also expressed his support for Arizona's extra-tough immigration laws, despite the fact that he has consistently said they wouldn't work in Texas.
On HPV, Perry stood firm, saying he'd made a mistake, but repeating his line that he will "always err on the side of life." Speaking of the opt-out provision that existed in his order, which he now says should have been opt-in, Perry quipped, "I don't know what part of opt-out most parents don't get."
But he had trouble when asked to explain why Texas has the highest rate of the uninsured in the U.S. He went off on a tangent about the Medicaid waiver Texas asked the federal government for under Bush and Obama, a measure that neither administration supported because it would've endangered eligibility and enrollment levels.
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In a line of questioning about Romney's health care plan in Massachusetts, Perry stumbled again, trying to portray Romney as a flip-flopper in comments that didn't seem to make sense: "I think Americans just don’t know sometimes which Mitt Romney they’re dealing with. Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of — against the — Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it before he was before the social programs from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against Roe v. Wade? He was for Race to the Top – he’s for Obamacare and now he’s against it – I mean we’ll wait until tomorrow and see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight."
Perry also had a couple of fact-check foibles on Thursday night. On Social Security, he said "we never said we were going to move this back to the states," despite the fact that he has proposed such an idea in his 2010 book "Fed Up," and in televised interviews. During the debate, he said it was just an option.
In defense of his controversial executive order to require young girls to receive an HPV vaccine, Perry said he was "lobbied" by a woman with Stage 4 cervical cancer. According to a 2007 Texas Weekly article, Perry was not introduced to 31-year-old Heather Burcham until after he had already issued the order, and overturning it was being debated by the Texas Legislature.
When asked about job creation in Texas, Perry spoke of tort reform, which he has said has encouraged more doctors to move to Texas. PolitiFact reported in August that Perry's claim that doctors have moved to Texas because of tort reform is only partially true, and was largely driven by population growth.
And in a line of questioning about his relationship with Bush, Perry, who said the two talk on a "relatively regular basis," said he and Bush disagreed on No Child Left Behind. "The federal government has no business telling the states how to educate our children," Perry said. But Perry accepted financing for the education program as governor. This fiscal year, Texas received $2.03 billion in No Child Left Behind financing.
Romney attacks back: "I actually wrote my book."
"We never said we were going to move this back to the states," Perry said, just that it was an option.
"There’s a Rick Perry out there" that's saying different things, Romney said. "You better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that."
Paul says there's no way to police the morning after pill.
What they don't have in common, he said, is probably as much in style as in substance. "I was very vocal in my disagreement with him on Medicaid Part D," Perry said. He also said they disagreed on No Child Left Behind. "The federal government has no business telling the states how to educate our children."
In the follow-up, Perry stumbled on his words against Romney: "Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of against the second amendment before he was against he second amendment? Was it before he was against the social programs...before he was against Roe vs. Wade, he was for Race for the Top. He's for Obamacare and now he's against it. We'll wait until tomorrow and see which Mitt Romney we're really talking to tonight."
Again, Romney tells Perry "nice try."
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