Is Rick Perry Helping Mitt Romney's Candidacy?

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In their onstage scuffles, the former Massachusetts governor has come out ahead, delivering two strong debate performances

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Rick Perry has cost Mitt Romney his lead in the polls but made him a better candidate and potentially, a more formidable nominee.

The former Massachusetts governor, long disparaged as a fragile frontrunner for the nomination, is showing a spark that seemed elusive when he topped the national polls. He delivered his second confident debate performance against Perry on Monday, raising more questions about the Texas governor's position on Social Security even as Perry tried to close out the discussion by vowing the benefits were "slam-dunk guaranteed'' for current recipients.

In the most pivotal moment of the debate, Romney laid a trap for Perry by asking if he was going to "retreat'' from the idea that Social Security is an unconstitutional federal program that should be turned over to the states.

It was as if Romney had waved a red flag in front of the typically hard-charging Perry, who balked instead of lunging forward. First he mocked the idea that the New Deal was beyond reproach, but then he said "obviously we're not going to take away'' such an institution. "I think we ought to have a conversation.'' Perry said.

Romney interrupted with perhaps his best line of the night. "We're having that right now governor. We're running for president.''

Going head-to-head with his swaggering, cowboy-boot wearing rival, Romney showed the political chops that have frequently been lacking during his many years on the presidential campaign trail. Voting won't begin for months in the Republican contest so there's plenty of time for the dynamic to shift again, but Romney showed Monday night that his rival's sudden surge hasn't left him on the ropes.

Before Perry entered the race last month, Romney had shied from engaging with his Republican rivals, choosing to stay above the fray. Perry's surge in the polls made it impossible for him to continue that strategy. Polls show Perry drawing support not just in the demographics he was expected to win -- evangelicals and tea party adherents -- but among groups that had been considered Romney's sweet spot: college-educated suburbanites. And just as Hillary Clinton forced Barack Obama to become a better candidate in their drawn-out battle for the Democratic nomination in 2008, Perry seems to be helping Romney to find his audience.

For years now, Romney has been explaining which side he was on. Is he for abortion or against it? Is he for the individual mandate in health insurance or against it? Even Romney himself didn't seem sure. The new Romney is willing to displease: Before a tea party audience at the debate, he defended the existence of the Federal Reserve. In recent months, he acknowledged climate change and refused to sign an anti-abortion pledge that he said went too far.

Those are risks suddenly worth taking because the makeup of the Republican field is working in Romney's favor. While his leading rivals scramble to win the GOP conservative activists, he can lay claim to the centrist wing of the party, with little real competition now that Tim Pawlenty has dropped out of the race (and, on Monday, endorsed Romney). The only other potential contender for that constituency, Jon Huntsman, is flailing. His poll numbers are low and on Monday, he took on the role of an unwelcome guest at a party of conservatives, cracking awkward jokes about Kurt Cobain and Perry's "treasonous" position on border security.

Perry, on the other hand, faces a slew of rivals competing for the movement conservatives in the Republican Party. In sharp contrast to Huntsman's feckless swipes against Romney, Perry's competitors delivered withering attacks on his record in Texas. Unlike previous debates when he was the prime target, Romney could sit back while his rivals did their best to undercut Perry's conservative base.

The sharpest criticism came from Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, who excoriated Perry's 2007 decision requiring vaccinations for sixth-grade girls against a cervical cancer-causing virus. The Minnesota congresswoman, referencing her three daughters, showed the passion that fueled her summertime surge in the polls but was absent in the last debate.

"To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong," she said. "That should never be done. It's a violation of a liberty interest."

Santorum piled on. Perry may have admitting that he made a "mistake'' in how he executed the program but he was still defending its merits, he said. "This is big government run amok," Santorum said. "It is bad policy, and it should not have been done."

While Santorum and Bachmann savaged Perry's credentials as a social conservative, Ron Paul questioned his legitimacy as a fiscal hawk. The Texas congressman, who has delighted in tangling with Perry in consecutive debates, blasted the governor's record on spending and taxes. That's sensitive terrain for Perry, who has made his job-creation record in Texas the centerpiece of his campaign.

"I'm a taxpayer there -- my taxes have gone up," Paul quipped. So has the state's debt, he added. And in one of the debate's more memorable lines, he slyly added, "I don't want to offend the governor because he might raise my taxes or something."

After Monday's debate in Tampa on Monday and last week's showdown at the Reagan Presidential Library, the distinctions between the two leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have come into sharp focus. Perry is the candidate who wants to "make Washington D.C. as inconsequential in your life as I can.'' Romney is the candidate for people who "think the country needs a turnaround.''

Perry played the passionate ideological warrior. President Barack Obama's economic stimulus program "created zero jobs.'' The Texas governor doubled down on his characterization of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke as "treasonous,'' adding, "I think that is a very clear statement of fact.''

Romney, by contrast, played the cool corporate executive, appealing to an audience outside the debate hall by raising questions about Perry's electability. Perry's use of the term "Ponzi scheme'' to describe Social Security "over the top and unnecessary and I think frightful to people," he said.

Pawlenty's endorsement of Romney on Monday signaled how nervous Perry makes the Republican establishment. And even anti-establishment Republicans like Mike Huckabee are raising questions about his viability in a general election.

"Rick likes to come across as the straight-shootin,' blunt talking guy and that works very well in Texas and it will work very well in what I call the hardcore center of the Republican primary,'' Huckabee told conservative radio talk show host Laura Ingraham. "But when you have to branch out and get to those younger voters and general election voters, I'm not sure how it's going to play out."

Image credit: Scott Audette/Reuters

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Beth Reinhard & Alex Roarty

Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal. Alex Roarty is a politics writer for National Journal.

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