Romney vs. Perry: Worth Waiting For

Romney attacks Perry on Social Security as the Texas governor once again calls it a "Ponzi scheme"

GOP debate CA - Danny Moloshok Reuters - banner.jpg

The first Republican debate with Rick Perry onstage confirmed that this really is a two-man race and illuminated the stark choice ahead for GOP primary voters. Perry is a provocateur, whether the subject is Social Security or Karl Rove. Mitt Romney is the safe option, the solid corporate citizen who wants to save grandma's Social Security and fix the economy 59 ways. You know you should marry him and stop eyeing that other guy, the daredevil on the fast motorcycle. You want excitement from Romney? How about that Swiss polka-dot tie?

The news of the evening, aside from Perry proving he belongs in the top tier, was the way Romney went after Perry on Social Security. Perry's fusillades against the program have long been seen as a potentially huge liability in a general election. Given Romney's new tack, it looks like they'll be coming back to bite him much sooner.

The evening at the Reagan library in Simi Valley, Calif., produced riveting political theater right from the start as the two men faced off over their economic records in states that are as opposite as they are.

Perry: We created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts.
ROMNEY: States are different. Texas is a great state. Texas has zero income tax. Texas has a right to work state, a Republican legislature, a Republican Supreme Court. Texas has a lot of oil and gas in the ground. Those are wonderful things, but Governor Perry doesn't believe that he created those things. If he tried to say that, well, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.
PERRY: I know back and forth -- Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt.
ROMNEY: Well, as a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor.
PERRY: That's not correct.
ROMNEY: Yes, that is correct.
Moderator Brian Williams: Nice to see everybody came prepared for tonight's conversation.

That exchange set the tone for what followed. Perry and Romney dominated the evening, with Ron Paul engaging in the occasional extracurricular sparring match with his fellow Texan. Newt Gingrich, true to form, attacked the moderators for asking the wrong questions. Michele Bachmann had few moments in the spotlight and did not use them to make news or depart in any way from her "I'm a fighter who hates Obamacare" script. She was notably combative in her last debate against fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty, now out of the race, but this time she did not try to score points against rivals.

That fell to Jon Huntsman, who said the pair's jobs records paled beside his. "I hate to rain on the parade of the Lone Star governor, but as governor of Utah, we were the number one job creator in this country during my years of service. That was 5.9 percent when you were creating jobs at 4.9 percent. And to my good friend, Mitt, 47 just ain't going to cut it, my friend, not when you can be first," Huntsman said, referring to Massachusetts' job-creation ranking while Romney was governor. Still, neither that exchange, nor an attack on Perry for rejecting scientific consensus on evolution and global warming, appeared likely to change the fundamental Perry-Romney dynamic.

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Jill Lawrence is a national correspondent at National Journal. She was previously a columnist at Politics Daily, national political correspondent at USA Today and national political writer at the Associated Press.

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