Rick Perry and Mitt Romney Dominate Republican Debate

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The two frontrunners drew all the attention, emerging as the "winners" of Wednesday's GOP presidential forum -- but at what price?

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Rick Perry and Mitt Romney eclipsed the Republican presidential field Wednesday night by brawling over their jobs records and trading practiced barbs in a high-stakes debate that further distanced the two front-runners from the beleaguered pack.

But at what price?

The testy exchanges allowed Perry to cast himself as a conservative truth-teller and Romney to bill himself as the most electable GOP candidate. In doing so, both men exposed each others' political vulnerabilities and risked alienating independent voters who are looking for more civility in politics.

Oh, and they ticked off their rivals - the also-rans, no doubt jealous of all the attention. "There are eight of us up here," complained Texas Rep. Ron Paul after being ignored during the debate's opening minutes.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich bristled at Politico's John Harris for asking a pointed but fair question. "I'm frankly not interest in your efforts to get Republicans fighting each other," Gingrich said. "Whoever the nominee is, we're all for defeating Barack Obama."

Sure, but first, one of them has to beat the rest.

If national polls are to be believed (and that is always a dubious assumption), Perry is best positioned to win the GOP nomination. Which is why it was a curious - if not risky - strategy to come out swinging against Romney. Indeed, the Texas governor can't seem to pass up a fight; he attacked Paul, as well as a Republican who wasn't even on the stage: former Bush adviser Karl Rove.

And yet Perry played the martyr. "I kind of feel," he said, "like the piñata here at the party." With good reason. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, started the fight with an early and subtle dig at Perry's long career in government. Romney's campaign quickly followed up with a press release calling Perry a "career politician." In case anybody missed the point, the press release included photos of Perry aging in office.

Perry praised Romney for creating jobs as a private businessman, but said he record as governor "did not match that."

Romney accused Perry of taking credit for creating jobs in Texas that were the result of conditions outside of Perry's control. To claim credit, Romney said, would be "like Al Gore saying he created the Internet."

Ouch. It's a low blow in GOP politics to compare a rival to Gore, especially when that rival is Perry - a former Democrat who once supported Gore.

Perry hit lower. "Mike Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt," he said.

"As a matter of fact," Romney replied, George W. Bush and his predecessors "created jobs faster than you did."

Same to you and more of it.

"It's nice to see everyone came prepared for tonight's debate," cracked NBC's Brian Williams, co-moderator of the debate.

Indeed, candidates not named Perry and Romney also had good nights. Huntsman stood out as a reasonable and moderate candidate who could go toe-to-toe with the first tier ("I have to say, Mitt, now is not the time ... to start a trade war."). Rep. Michele Bachmann took the steadiest aim at President Barack Obama, underscoring her impressive discipline and polish ("ObamaCare is killing jobs"). And Paul, after a slow start, finally got the attention he craves, even though it came with Perry questioning his loyalty to the GOP.

But it was the Texas cowboy and Massachusetts businessman who stole the show and stuck to their talking points. "Maybe it's time to have some provocative language in this country," Perry said, delivering all that and more.

He refused to back down from calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme, saying "it is a monstrous lie" to suggest to young Americans that Social Security will be available for them as it stands. Reminded that Rove has called such language "toxic," Perry snapped, "You know, Karl has been over the top for a long a time in some of his remarks. So I am not responsible for Karl anymore."

Nope, but Perry is responsible for every outside-the-mainstream policy he backed and every over-the-top statement he made in his eleven years as governor. Evolution. Texas succession. And more, much more, if Romney has his way.

Image credit: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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