Romney vs. Perry: Worth Waiting For

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

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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.

Now admittedly it is hard to stand out on the provocateur scale when you are competing with Paul and Gingrich. But Perry held his own. He strongly defended his skepticism about climate change views that Huntsman said were accepted by 98 percent of scientists. "Here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell," Perry said, his point apparently being that scientists have been untrustworthy for at least 400 years.

Nor did Perry back down from previous writings and statements in which he called Social Security an illegal Ponzi scheme and a "monstrous lie" to future generations. Reminded that Rove, his former adviser, has said that language would be "toxic" in a general election, Perry replied: "You know, Karl has been over the top for a long time in some of his remarks. So I'm not responsible for Karl anymore."

Put Romney in the "toxic" camp. He reproached Perry onstage for saying Social Security is a failure and states should be able to opt out of it. The GOP nominee can't be someone "committed to abolishing Social Security," Romney said, it has to be someone who is committed to saving it. "It is working for millions of Americans, and I'll keep it working for millions of Americans," he pledged.

For good measure, his campaign shot off an email headlined "Perry Does Not Believe Social Security Should Exist," backed up with multiple quotes. The Democratic National Committee could well have sent it, and probably already has.

At some points, as during Romney's defense of Social Security, the primary and general elections in states like Florida hung over the proceedings. But there were also vivid reminders of the extraordinarily conservative primary electorate these candidates face. The most shocking of them was when Williams said to Perry, "Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times," and the audience interrupted him with a burst of applause. "Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?" Williams went on. "No sir," Perry answered. "I've never struggled with that at all."

Perry's debut had its down moments. He never really explained how Texas schools could withstand the massive education budget cuts he is imposing. He blamed the federal government, completely inaccurately according to Politifact, for the fact that a quarter of his state has no health insurance (dead last compared to Romney's first place in coverage achieved with the dreaded individual mandate). And he missed out on a great comeback for Romney's attack on him as a career politician. Democratic strategist Bob Shrum thought it up for him on Hardball just before the debate -- he said Perry should point out that the only reason Romney isn't a career politician is because he keeps losing races.

If Romney's Social Security messaging is a sign of things to come, he may be using Perry's 2010 book, Fed Up, as a campaign roadmap. Are we going to hear him go after Perry for lamenting that state legislatures no longer pick senators, or the questionable constitutionality of Medicare? Asked by moderator John Harris to confirm that he is "standing by every word" in the book, Perry answered with an immediate "Yes, sir." That makes him a lot more consistent than Romney -- but at a cost.

Image credit: Danny Moloshok/Reuters

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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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