The focus heading into Wednesday’s debate was MItt Romney vs. Rick Perry and it’s the overriding story emerging from the event as well. Things got ugly early and often as the two governors exchanged words over jobs, entitlements, and health care.The dynamic was set from Perry’s very first question, where he touted Texas’ recent job growth, which has outpaced the national rate. Nothing surprising there, but he ended with a pointed and unprompted attack on Romney, saying that “we created more jobs in the last three months in Texas” than in Romney’s entire time as governor of Massachusetts.
Romney, clearly ready to rumble, shot back by saying Texas was not a fair comparison because of the state’s oil resources and conservative legislature.
“Governor Perry doesn’t believe that he created those things,” Romney said. “If he tried to say that it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.”
Perry took another whack at his rival on health care. Romney once again defended his Massachusetts health care law from several rivals’ attacks, saying his state’s individual mandate was put in place to prevent residents from exploiting health care benefits at the taxpayers’ expense.
“It was a great opportunity for us to see as a people what will not work,” Perry said, “and that is an individual mandate in this country.”
The most significant exchange, however, occurred over Social Security. Perry made an early decision in the campaign to embrace his harshest rhetoric from his book Fed Up! and past interviews on the program, which he has suggested is unconstitutional and should be transferred to the states. He kept up the same line in the debate, calling Social Security “a Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie,” two phrases he’s used repeatedly in recent weeks.
Romney, picking a rare fight against an opponent from the left, decided this was his moment to go all in. He launched into a lengthy and soaring defense of Social Security, accusing Perry of breaking faith with the millions of American seniors who depend on its benefits.
“In the book Fed Up! you say by any measure Social Security is a failure,” he said. “You can’t say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security and those who have lived on it. Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security but is committed to saving Social Security.”
Underscoring the point, Romney’s press office immediately sent out an email to reporters with the subject “PERRY DOES NOT BELIEVE SOCIAL SECURITY SHOULD EXIST.” After the debate, a “top Romney adviser” told Huffington Post’s Howard Fineman that “Perry just lost the election…He said he’d abolish Social Security! You can’t win federal office saying that.”
There are a couple of major takeaways from the three sparring matches. One is that Perry’s natural instinct is to attack. Far from striking a frontrunner pose and avoiding conflict, Perry was as quick to go after his opponents as anyone on stage, even picking fights with lower tier candidates like Ron Paul. His campaign reflected this in the run up as well, issuing tough responses to ads by Paul and a pro-Bachmann Super PAC almost immediately after they were announced, but the debate is confirmation of this approach.
Another is that the rest of the field, if it wasn’t clear already, are falling to the wayside. Perry and Romney dominated the room and the other candidates did little to throw either off their game.
But the biggest deal is Romney’s decision to make Social Security his hill to die on in the race. It’s a huge gamble that assumes that despite the Tea Party’s talk of returning to Calvin Coolidge-era America, GOP seniors are just as protective of their benefits as the average retiree. Romney has been very careful up to this point not be outflanked on his right by his rivals, but here he is deliberately positioning himself as the electable moderate to Perry’s anti-entitlement extremist. This dynamic will be absolutely crucial to watch in the coming days.