Perry, who became an instant frontrunner when he announced his candidacy last month, found himself on the defensive from the outset. He immediately came under attack from Romney for stating in a book he published six months ago that Social Security is unconstitutional and a failure, and that it should be taken over by the states. Perry dodged repeated questions from Romney and the debate moderator, CNN anchorman Wolf Blitzer, when they asked him whether he still stood by those positions.
Romney also criticized Perry for calling Social Security a â€œPonzi scheme,â€ in last weekâ€™s debate. The term refers to the kind of financial swindle employed by Bernard Madoff to rob gullible investors. Perry also called Social Security an â€œabsolute failure.â€
SCARING THE SENIORS
Romney said that using such harsh language frightened senior voters who are dependent upon the Social Security program for their income and medical care. Perryâ€™s attacks also tended to validate Democrat claims that Republicans are intent on destroying the Social Security system. That would make it harder for the GOP candidate to beat President Obama in the general election.
As the other candidates in the debate weighed in on the issue, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had the most astute observation, as usual. He said that it was pointless for other candidates to complain about Perryâ€™s choice of language to describe Social Security, when President Obama went much further to frighten seniors by publicly threatening to withhold their August Social Security checks during the debate over the debt ceiling crisis this summer.
Gingrich said, â€œIâ€™m not particularly worried about Governor Perry and Governor Romney frightening the American people when President Obama scares them every single day.
â€œThat was not a rhetorical joke. President Obama twice said recently he couldnâ€™t guarantee delivering the checks to Social Security recipients. Now, why should young people who are 16 to 25 years old have politicians have the power for the rest of their life to threaten to take away their Social Security?â€
Gingrich then suggested two ways in which the Social Security system could easily be saved.
SAVING SOCIAL SECURITY
â€œThe first is, you get back to a full employment economy. At four percent unemployment you have such a huge increase in funding, that you change every single out year [fiscal] projection in a positive way.
The second is you say precisely as several folks here have said. Everybody who is older and wants to be totally protected — fine, no change. So donâ€™t let anybody lie to you, starting with the president. No change. But if youâ€™re younger and you would like a personal account, you would control instead of the politicians, and you know youâ€™ll have more money at the end of your lifetime if you control it than the politicians, why shouldnâ€™t you have the right to choose?â€
Bachmann weighed in accusing President Obama of â€œstealingâ€ $500 billion from the Medicare program to fund his Obamacare proposal, an issue which she would return to repeatedly throughout the debate.
Perry responded to Romney sharply, saying that in the former Massachusetts governorâ€™s own book, he had called the financial dealings surrounding Social Security â€œcriminal.â€ Romney quickly explained that he was referring to the actions by Congress to siphon off the income from the Social Security trust fund to pay for the day-to-day operations of the federal government. He said that if businessmen in the private sector tried to do that with the retirement funds of their employees, they would be prosecuted for embezzlement.
YOUNGER WORKERS DESERVE A CHOICE
While Perry did not back off from his prior criticisms, he went to some lengths to reassure those receiving Social Security and those who are close to retirement age that if he were elected president, they would continue to receive the systemâ€™s current benefits. But he said that it was essential for younger workers to realize that both the Social Security and Medicare entitlement programs as currently structured are not financially viable over the long term, and must be modified if they are to survive.
All the candidates agreed with Gingrich that younger workers should be given the choice of opting out of the Social Security system and managing their own private retirement accounts. Former businessman Herman Cain was particularly impressive in citing how such a system worked for the government employees in Galveston County, Texas.
CAIN IS IMPRESSIVE
Cain, who is a political novice, and a long shot in the race, had relatively few opportunities to speak, but whenever he was called upon, he was very well prepared on every issue. He gave sharp, coherent and direct answers and continued to make a favorable impression of his qualifications for national office.
Throughout the debate, Cain stressed that he was the only non-politician on the stage.
Earlier in the debate, when asked about how he would go about restoring Americaâ€™s prosperity, Cain said, â€œThis economy is on life support. We need a bold solution, not one that tinkers around the edges, not one that allows politicians to continue to pick winners and losers.
â€œI believe we [should] throw out the entire tax code and put in my 9-9-9 plan: a 9 percent business flat tax, a 9 percent personal income tax and a 9 national sales tax.
â€œNow Iâ€™ve been told by some people, well, you canâ€™t get that done. I say why? Well, because you donâ€™t know how Washington works. Yes, I do. It doesnâ€™t.
â€œI agree with many of the others up here who say, you get the government out of the way. American entrepreneurship, American businesses, they will create the jobs if we provide some certainty.â€
ROMNEYâ€™S RECOVERY PLAN
Romney also offered his own 7-point plan for restoring American prosperity:
One, make our tax code competitive with the world. Two, get regulations to work to encourage enterprise. Three, make sure we have trade policies that work for us not just for the other guys. Four, have energy security in this country by developing our energy resources. Five, execute the rule of law, which is to stop the Boeing decision that the NLRB put in place [an order prompted by labor unions which would prohibit Boeing from opening a new aircraft factory in South Carolina]. Six, make sure that we have institutions that create fantastic human capital. And finally number seven is to balance the budget. People wonâ€™t invest here unless they have confidence here. And thatâ€™s what Iâ€™ll do.â€
Romney argued that he was the best qualified of the candidates to restore American prosperity.
â€œI spent my life in the private sector. Iâ€™ve competed with companies around the world. Iâ€™ve learned something about how it is that economies grow. Itâ€™s not just simple wave a wand and everything gets better. No, you have to make some structural changes. The world has changed.
â€œWhatâ€™s happened over the last 20, 30 years is, weâ€™ve gone from a pay phone world to a smartphone world and President Obama keeps jamming quarters into the pay phone thinking things are going to get better. Itâ€™s not connected, Mr. President!â€
PERRY DODGES AN IMPORTANT QUESTION
Perry continued to dodge Romneyâ€™s repeated efforts to pin him down on the statements about Social Security in his book. Romney pressed him. â€œDo you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program as you did six months ago, when your book came out, and returned to the states or do you want to retreat from that?â€ he asked.
â€œI think we ought to have a conversation,â€ Perry interjected.
â€œWeâ€™re having that right now, Governor. Weâ€™re running for president,â€ Romney said.
Perry never gave a clear answer to the Social Security question, and the debate moved on to other issues. This left the impression that Perry was afraid to be seen as backtracking on his former positions, a criticism which Romney has had to endure throughout the race.
WHY THE GOP ESTABLISHMENT IS NERVOUS
While Perryâ€™s hard line criticism of Social Security was popular with the Tea Party audience in the room, it makes most non-Tea Party Republican candidates for election around the country cringe.
Republicans running for the House and Senate next year are not eager to have to answer challenges from Democrat opponents in their own campaigns over Perryâ€™s harsh criticisms of Social Security. That concern helped to motivate former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, the only GOP presidential candidate to drop out of the race so far, to endorse Romney on Tuesday.
Washington lobbyist Vin Weber, a former GOP Congressman and Pawlenty backer, who now is supporting Romney, told the New York Times that there is â€œdeep concernâ€ inside the Republican Party about nominating Perry, because of his limited appeal to independents and moderate voters who often decide the outcome of national elections.
â€œWhat I think you are seeing is that itâ€™s partially establishment versus Tea Party, thereâ€™s no question about that,â€ Weber said.
The ongoing debate within the GOP is over whether allegiance to Tea Party conservative principles should overrule political advantage in the selection of a presidential candidate for the general election. Among the current leaders in the race, Romney generally has the support of moderate and many establishment party leaders, while Perry and Bachmann are competing for the support of both Tea Party activists and members of the religious right, who are uneasy with Romneyâ€™s record as governor of Massachusetts and his Mormon faith.
PERRY AND ROMNEY DEFEND THEIR RECORDS
Romney has come under particular criticism for his Massachusetts health care plan, which has been described as a forerunner of Obamacare.
Perry stood his ground throughout the debate, whether on Social Security or questions raised by Romney on his job-creation record in Texas. On immigration, he affirmed his previous opposition to building a fence along the length of the US-Mexican border and his support for providing in-state college tuition discounts for children of illegal immigrants â€” but the issue threatens to continue to dog him in the race.
Romney is seen as Perryâ€™s principal rival for the partyâ€™s nomination. Perry immediately overtook Romney as the frontrunner in the GOP polls as soon as he entered the race last month. Perryâ€™s record is clearly stronger on core Republican conservative issues, giving him an initial advantage in the party primary process. But Romneyâ€™s more moderate positions and polished image make him more attractive to moderate and independent voters whose support will be crucial to GOP hopes to defeat Obama in the general election next year.
The sharp differences in the two menâ€™s campaign styles was also on display in the Tuesday night debate. Romney came off as cool, calm and sophisticated while Perry was more feisty, folksy and aggressive.
In one sharp exchange, Romney tried to chip away at Perryâ€™s assertion that he has had a superior record at creating jobs while governor of Texas. Romney attributed that to Perrryâ€™s good fortune to be governing in a state that has no state income tax, a Republican legislature, a right-to-work law, and rich oil and gas resources.
â€œI think Governor Perry would agree with me that if youâ€™re dealt four aces, that doesnâ€™t make you necessarily a great poker player,â€ he said.
Perry was quick to respond with a folksy quip, saying, â€œMitt, you were doing pretty good until you got to talking poker.â€ He then reiterated his contention that, â€œthe fact is the state of Texas has led the nation.â€
Romney did not deny that, but he did imply that under Perry, the stateâ€™s rate of new jobs creation was slower than under previous Texas governors George W. Bush and Democrat Anne Richards.
GANGING UP AGAINST PERRY
While Romney generally took the lead in challenging Perryâ€™s positions and record throughout the debate, Bachmann, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, former senator Rick Santorum and Congressman Ron Paul also took turns at challenging Perry on various issues.
Bachmann has been seen as the candidate who suffered the most from Perryâ€™s entry into the race. She seemed to be especially intent on using the debate to attack his record on core conservative issues in order to contest his appeal to the Tea Party segment of the party, which had been her base of support.
The debate was co-hosted by CNN and the Tea Party Express. It featured questions from a live Tea Party audience on site, and from various Tea Party groups gathered across the country. As a result, the topics covered during the two hour event generally focused on the core issues which have been emphasized by Tea Party activists.
There were a number of questions posed to the panelists about economic policy, including the proper role for the Federal Reserve, and changes that are necessary to reform the federal tax code. The moderator asked Perry whether he still stood by his prior public remark that actions taken by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke were treasonous. Characteristically, Perry avoided giving a direct response, and called upon the Federal Reserve to pursue a â€œsound monetary policyâ€ and a â€œstrong dollar.â€
This led to a general agreement among the candidates on the need to reform the federal tax code by reducing the number of special interest deductions in order to broaden the tax base, and permitting the tax rates to be lowered while generating the same amount of money.
WHAT IS A LOOPHOLE?
This led to one of the most interesting policy observations of the debate, when Gingrich was asked about whether government handouts to some of the biggest companies in the United States were fair.
He said, â€œYou know, I thought for a second, you were going to refer to General Electric, which has paid no taxes. . . . I was astonished the other night to have the president there in the joint session with the head of GE sitting up there and the president talking about taking care of loopholes. And I thought to myself, doesnâ€™t he realize that every green tax credit is a loophole… that everything General Electric is doing is a loophole?
â€œWe have a simple choice. We can depend on Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, or we can encourage development in the United States of manufacturing, oil and gas. We can do it by saying weâ€™re going to let you keep more of your money if you create more of what we want. Iâ€™m for an energy- independent America, and that means I favor people who create energy.â€
Bachmann repeated her dogged opposition in Congress both to Obamcare and to the compromise that raised the federal debt ceiling.
â€œI was the leading voice in the wilderness of Washington all summer. I was one of the only people in Washington that said do not raise the debt ceiling. Donâ€™t give the president of the United States another $2.4 trillion blank check. Youâ€™ve got to draw the line in the sand somewhere and say no more out of control spending,â€ Bachmann said.
She suggested that instead of continuing to run up the deficit and borrowing more money from countries like China to pay for ineffective liberal stimulus packages, a better solution would be to cut the taxes on American corporate profits earned abroad. That would allow those companies to â€œrepatriateâ€ (bring back to the United States) $1.2 trillion in profits that they have earned overseas to invest in the American economy.
Bachmann also suggested reforming the federal tax code in order to permanently lower tax rates. â€œIâ€™m a federal tax lawyer. I know how to do that,â€ she added. She also called for the repeal of the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation which was passed last year, and most of all, for the repeal of Obamacare.
Bachmann insisted that she is the only GOP candidate who is committed to eliminating Obamacare through legislation in addition to issuing executive orders. She criticized Romney for incorporating a personal health insurance mandate in his Massachusetts health care bill, which she says is unconstitutional.
PERRYâ€™S IMMIGRATION POLICIES CHALLENGED
Immigration came late in the debate and provided an opportunity for both Bachmann and Romney to criticize Perryâ€™s decision as governor to allow the children of illegal immigrants in Texas to pay reduced in-state tuition rates at Texas state colleges.
Romney argued that providing such discounts at taxpayer expense only gives incentives to people to come to the country illegally, and he said he supports building a fence to secure the border.
Perry defended his immigration program as â€œthe American way,â€ but that response was one of the few during the debate when Perry drew boos from the Tea Party audience.
Perry had ample opportunity to display the strong political talents for which he has long been renowned in Texas. He has a knack for simplifying (his critics would say oversimplifying) complex issues and hitting hard against his opponentâ€™s weaknesses. However, he also showed an ability to dodge questions he didnâ€™t want to answer, and a strong reluctance to simply admit having made a mistake. That got him into trouble during the debate when Bachmann pressed him on the HPV vaccine issue.
PERRY STILL FIRST BUT NO LONGER INVINCIBLE
Media analysts generally agreed that Perry emerged from the debate still the front-runner, but without the aura of political invincibility which some had rushed to confer upon him when he entered the race.
While his strong stance against Social Security played well with the Tea Party audience, GOP insiders are worried that it could be a real problem if Perry becomes Obamaâ€™s challenger in the general election.
Perry also seemed to be a little too slick in trying to avoid giving direct answers to persistent questions about whether he was really serious about some of his more â€œover the topâ€ condemnations of Social Security in his book.
Romney generally performed well in the debate. He stood up head-to-head against Perry, and the two traded charges and made political points against one another on generally even terms. Romney also did well in explaining the inconsistencies in his record as governor of Massachusetts, including the differences between his health program and Obamacare.
He spoke well, explained his proposals clearly, and seemed to be the most â€œpresidentialâ€ looking candidate on the stage.
BACHMANN STILL IN THE TOP TIER
Of all the candidates in the debate, Bachman was the one who had the most on the line. She seemed to have the momentum going for her just last month, with her victory in the Iowa straw poll. But with Perry jumping into first place, and taking much of her former Tea Party support, she had to prove that she could challenge him successfully on core conservative issues. That is exactly what she did with the HPV vaccine issue.
Bachmann made strong emotional appeals, and proved that she still deserved to be ranked in the first tier of candidates, albeit somewhat behind Perry and Romney. This positions her well to step up should either of those two falter later in the race, and for serious consideration for the second spot on the national GOP ticket.
The debate also made it clear that any one of the top three candidates, Perry, Romney or Bachmann, would be a formidable opponent for Obama. The rest of the candidates in the debate are all clearly second tier choices, but some of them are still genuinely interesting.
SECOND TIER CHOICES
Herman Cain continues to make impressive showings in these events. He has a warm, genuine appeal, and his positions on the issues are very credible, but his lack of prior political experience is a serious handicap to overcome. He, too, would be an interesting choice for the second position on the national ticket.
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, another late entry into the race, acted more like a spoiler than a serious candidate. Touted as a moderate, he seemed to offer little in the debate. His most memorable quotes during the evening were a series of one liner attacks rather than serious policy statements. For example, he took advantage of a question on immigration policy to revive the old accusations against Romney for flip-flopping, saying, â€œI think we can spend all night talking about where Mittâ€™s been on all the issues of the day. And that would take forever.â€ One media commentator quipped that Huntsmanâ€™s demeanor during the debate reminded him of one of his old professors teaching a class that none of the students wanted to take.
Rick Santorumâ€™s performance during the debate was bittersweet. He hewed faithfully and brilliantly to his conservative policy line, and reminisced occasionally about his early victories in Pennsylvania politics. Twenty years ago, he was one of the conservative movementâ€™s young rising stars, and on its short list of future national leaders. He has still not recovered from his 2008 defeat in his bid for re-election to the US Senate, and his former role has now been taken by a new generation of Tea Party-endorsed leaders.
Ron Paul is still playing the role of the eccentric gadfly and libertarian maverick he invented in 2008. He is provocative and fun to listen to, but utterly unelectable. His ideas helped to give birth to the Tea Party movement, and for that reason alone he deserved to be included in the debate.
A SALUTE TO NEWT
Finally, there is Newt Gingrich, whose debate appearances are virtually the only active remaining part of his presidential campaign. He is clearly the most brilliant of the candidates in the race. He is also the only GOP candidate who is thinking clearly about national security issues.
When asked about it in the debate, he responded, â€œI think we are at the edge of an enormous crisis in national security. I think that we are greatly underestimating the threat to this country. And I think that the day after we celebrated the 10th anniversary of 9/11 we should be reminded exactly what is at stake if a foreign terrorist gets a nuclear weapon into this country.
â€œWe have failed for a decade to deal with North Korea. We have failed for a decade to deal with Iran. The developments in Egypt and Turkey are much more dangerous than anybody is looking at in this country. And I think we need, frankly, to ask for a very serious national dialogue.
â€œIâ€™d like to see both the House and Senate right now holding hearings on three levels of security. What do you do in Mexico where thereâ€™s a civil war underway next door to us? What do you do in the Middle East where we have totally underestimated the scale of the threat? And what do you do about our national domestic industrial base which is crucial if weâ€™re going to be competitive with China?
â€œAll three of those are a major threat to us.â€
Unfortunately, Gingrich carries far too much baggage to get elected. He remains extremely valuable to the party for his ideas and analysis. He richly deserves an honored status of party senior statesman. He should have an important role to play as advisor to the candidate who will win the GOP nomination, if he or she beats Obama. Listeners to the debate could not help but be convinced that any of the candidates, save Huntsman and Paul, are prepared to serve and would provide a welcome change from the failed policies of the current administration.