LAS VEGAS — A new Rick Perry showed up at Tuesday night’s GOP presidential debate. But whether he was effective — or likeable — is, well, debatable.
After getting mocked by conservative pundits and even spoofed on Saturday Night Live for his confused, unimpressive past debate performances, the Texas governor was full of fire at the CNN/Western Republican Leadership Conference debate in Las Vegas.
In his strongest performance yet — one largely devoid of the flubs and gaffes that have plagued past debates — Perry took almost every opportunity to attack front-runner Mitt Romney, and to turn the attention back to his talking points and rehearsed lines.
"This was a very good night for the governor, talking about jobs, defending his records, drawing contrasts where appropriate and where available," Perry communications director Ray Sullivan said afterward. "This is a campaign that's in it for the long haul."
Perry acted at times petulant, at times like a bully: He got booed by the audience for slamming Romney over an old story that he used a landscaping company that employed an illegal immigrant, and even exchanged tense words with CNN moderator Anderson Cooper, telling him: “You get to ask the question. I get to answer like I want to.”
And he traded in wallflower status for an attack dog role, working more adeptly than ever to direct traffic — though his messages at times fell flat with an audience that gave Perry as many jeers as cheers.
"I think Rick Perry had a strategy coming into this debate to kill Mitt, and he ended up killing himself," Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said following the debate. What the audience saw in Perry, Fehrnstrom said, is "someone who is trying to revive a candidacy that is sinking beneath the waves."
Perry came out of the gate aggressive; in his own introduction, he made a not-so-veiled swipe at Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, calling himself “an authentic conservative, not a conservative of convenience.”
In his first question, on Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, Perry got folksy when he suggested it was a no-go in states that currently have no sales tax, and adeptly switched gears to pitch his own jobs plan. “I’ll bump plans with you, brother, and we’ll see who has the best idea about how to get this country working again,” he told the former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive.
He slammed Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann’s stance on building a border fence, saying, “For someone who’s been in the United States Congress to lecture me about issues going on [on] the border is not right.”
But the rest of Perry’s attacks were reserved for Romney. He converted a question on Texas’ high rate of uninsured children into a missive against Romney’s alleged use of a lawn service that employed illegal immigrants, calling Romney a hypocrite.
“You stood here … and did not tell the truth that you had illegals working on your property,” Perry said. “… The idea you can talk about any of us having an immigration issue is beyond me.”
He compared his job creation record to Romney’s, saying Texas created more jobs in the last two months than Massachusetts did in two years.
“If you want to know how someone’s going to act in the future,” Perry said, “look how they act in the past.”
Perry’s attacks were so unrelenting — and at times so random — that Romney eventually got personal, explaining that Perry was trying to recover from “a rough couple of debates.”
“You have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking,” Romney said, telling Perry it wasn’t a particularly presidential trait.
Romney wasn’t the only one who went after Perry. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum criticized the Texas governor for what he described as Perry’s support of TARP, the 2008 bank bailout. Perry got angry and defensive, saying he never supported TARP. But Santorum called him out, referencing a 2008 letter Perry sent to Congress, in his capacity for the Republican Governors Association, urging lawmakers to pass an “economic recovery package.”
Despite the fact that the only economic recovery package on the floor was the TARP bailout, Perry said the letter was not specific, and wasn’t meant to give for the bailout. He said it was meant only to urge action to save the economy.
Meanwhile, the flap over Robert Jeffress, the Dallas megachurch pastor who introduced Perry at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., and later told reporters he thought Mormonism was a cult, didn’t make particularly big headlines on Tuesday night.
Perry repeated his past comments that he doesn’t agree with Jeffress, but fell short of repudiating Jeffress, saying people have the right to free speech. Romney — for one of the only times Tuesday night — seemed happy with the answer.
Perry accuses Romney of hiring illegal immigrants:
Perry goes after Cain's 9-9-9 plan: