Romney and Perry Clash in Florida Debate

In the latest Republican presidential forum, held Thursday night in Orlando, the two front-runners sparred on a range of issues

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Debating in Florida, where one in five residents is a Social Security recipient, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney clashed their visions of the retirement program, continuing a lively debate between the two frontrunners that threatens to overshadow the rest of the field.

The two sparred on Social Security, health care, immigration, and education, with Perry pressing to define Romney as outside the party's conservative mainstream -- "Obama-lite," as he termed Romney in an interview earlier this week -- and Romney describing Perry as a candidate prepared to cut his views to fit campaign fashions.

Perry, whose criticism of the retirement program has fed his populist, anti-Washington image, sought to assuage concerns that he will do away with Social Security. "Let me say first, for those that are on Social Security today, for those people that are approaching Social Security. They don't have anything in world to worry about. We have made a solemn oath to the people of this country that Social Security program in place today will be there for them," he said. Then, even though the question came from FOX News panelist Megyn Kelly, Perry quickly pivoted to attack Romney, who has been making an issue of Perry's use of the term "Ponzi scheme" to describe Social security.

"It is not the first time that Mitt has been wrong on some issues before," he said. Romney countered that Perry's debate-night views on Social Security are "different than what the governor put in his book.

"There's a Rick Perry out there that is saying. . . the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business," Romney said. "That it is unconstitutional. Unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states. You better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that," Romney said.

Though Herman Cain and Ron Paul got some of the loudest ovations of the night, the riveting confrontations between Romney and Perry seemed on the verge of turning the other seven candidates on the stage into spectators. The only real competition to the frontrunners, in terms of providing talker moments, was the audience in the Orange County Convention Center, which at one point booed a soldier stationed in Iraq, who revealed in his videotaped question that he is gay.

Perry and Romney tangled again and again. Challenged on the consistency of his Social Security views, Perry tried to turn the tables by arguing that Romney had changed his tune about the exportability of the Massachusetts universal health care plan, featuring an individual mandate, between the hardcover and paperback versions of his own campaign biography. Countered Romney: "I actually wrote my book."

The Texas governor used a discussion on education policy to link Romney to the president. The Texas governor criticized Romney for praising the administration's Race to the Top program, which gave states grants in exchange for making changes to their educational systems, saying it showed he's not conservative.

"I think is an important difference between the rest of the people on this stage and one person that wants to run for the presidency," he said. "Being in favor of the Obama Race to the Top ... that is not conservative."

Romney retorted, "Nice try," drawing laughs from the audience. But he did praise Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, saying he supported policies that encouraged teacher evaluations.

Romney got help form former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. -- not to mention the Orlando debate audience -- when it came to beating up on Perry's immigration stands.

Romney labeled the in-state tuition rate Perry signed into law for illegal immigrants an "almost $100,000 discount." Santorum called Perry "soft on illegal immigration." Bachmann called government benefits for illegal immigrants "madness." And the audience booed Perry.

The Texas governor was unflinching. Immigration policy has a special resonance in Texas, which claims a 1,200-mile border with Mexico and a nearly 40 percent Hispanic and Latino population share in the 2010 census. And Perry's 10-0 election record in Texas is due in part to his ability to appeal to Latino voters, rendering him a rare commodity in the modern GOP, which has struggled to lure that demographic in part because of its occasionally hard-line immigration policy.

The more moderate stance could also help Perry in a general election, with many Latinos disappointed in President Barack Obama's immigration policies, including failure to pass the DREAM Act and what advocates call an overzealous deportation policy. Republican strategists worry that the rest of the field's more hard-line stance could harm the party among Latino voters.

Dismissing the notion of a border fence as impractical, Perry emphasized his "boots on the ground" enforcement efforts, and the bipartisan support for his immigration policy, calling it a "state issue."

"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," Perry said.

That contrasted sharply with his fellow Texan, Rep. Ron Paul, who won great applause by thundering, "No free education. No free subsidies, no citizenship."

Perry's camp pushed back on the "soft" charge, noting that Perry supported fencing in strategic areas, had devoted more than $400 million in law enforcement spending to the border since 2005, and signed a law blocking illegal immigrants from receiving driver's licenses.

Perry was equally undaunted another issue. After Rep. Michele Bachmann pivoted on a question about her claim that the HPV vaccine had caused mental retardation in a young girl to attack Perry's efforts to mandate it, the governor issued an impassioned defense that put a face on his policy.

"I got lobbied on this issue. I got lobbied by a 31-year-old young lady who had stage 4 cervical cancer," Perry said, saying he had already "readily admitted" the program should have included "an opt-in" clause.

"The fact is, I erred on the side of life and I will always err on the side of life," Perry said. The exchange points to central weaknesses for both candidates. Bachmann has developed a reputation for coughing up factually wrong statements in public, and much was made of her post-debate narrative of the young girl who developed mental retardation after the vaccine, a story Bachmann said the girl's mother had told her.

"I didn't make that claim nor do I make that statement. Immediately after a debate a mother came up to me and was visibly shaken and heart broken because of what her daughter had gone through. I only related what her story was," Bachmann said, shifting responsibility for the claim to the woman who had approached her.

Perry, on the other hand, has been parrying questions about both the big-government feel of a mandatory vaccine program for young girls and Bachmann's charges of crony capitalism because his former chief of staff, a longtime friend, had lobbied for drug company Merck.

From the early moments of the debate, Perry and Romney showed Republican presidential debate how their respective home states figure in the GOP primary. Perry played up his home state and its enviable job growth record in the midst of a recession. Romney, ex-governor of liberal bastion Massachusetts, is happy to downplay policies he pursued there -- such as health care form -- that are unlikely to be assets in a GOP nomination contest dominated by conservatives. Instead of looking back on his record, Romney was happy to play up his future vision for the national economy.

Boasting that the Lone Star State has been the leading destination for relocating workers for five years in a row, Perry jovially acknowledged Florida Gov. Rick Scott in the audience and added: "We plan on keeping it that way, Rick."

Perry's competitive jab may have been intended as a friendly one, but his emphasis on Texas's continued success at the expense of other states, underscores concerns by some of his advisers that the governor's appeal could be circumscribed by his state's border. Romney, on the other hand, played up federal priorities: corporate tax rates, the desire for regulators and government to ally with businesses, middle class tax cuts, and trade policies that could help U.S. businesses against competitors such as China.

Perry's foreign policy agenda has been hard to define and he didn't help himself at the debate. Asked what he would do if he received a "3 a.m. phone call" saying that Pakistan had lost control of its nuclear weapons to the Taliban, the Texas governor demurred. Responding would depend on building strong relationships with other countries, he said. "The point is, our allies need to understand clearly that we are their friends, we will be standing by with them," he said. "Today we don't have those allies in that region that can assist us, if that situation that you talked about were to become a reality."

Though most of the political attention is focused on the frontrunners Perry and Romney, the applause meter seemed to register the highest responses for Herman Cain and Ron Paul.

Cain even took a shot at Romney, to the crowd's delight, when he compared their plans for overhauling the tax system.

"Unlike Governor Romney's plan, my plan throws out the old one he's still hooked to the current tax code," he said. "That dog won't hunt."

Paul followed Cain, and received a question, sent via video from a couple in Indiana, right in the libertarian's wheelhouse: Would he limit the size of the federal government?

"The responsibility of the president would be to veto every single bill that violates the 10th amendment. That would be the solution," he said, succinctly. Moderator Chris Wallace, taken aback by the congressman's brevity, joked that he had much more time to answer the question.

Image credit: Reuters

Presented by

Jim O'Sullivan & Alex Roarty

Jim O'Sullivan is chief analyst for National Journal Daily. Alex Roarty is a politics writer for National Journal.

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