It was a warm California evening and things got just as heated inside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Tonight’s debate, which was the first debate that featured all of the GOP presidential candidates, began with a prolonged standing ovation for the evening’s host, Nancy Reagan, who arrived in a regal red dress and her trademark black glasses. It didn’t take long after the applause ended for the candidates to drop their gloves and come out swinging.
It was clear from the outset that the fresh face on stage, Gov. Rick Perry, would be the focus of much of the evening’s questioning. The first question posed by NBC host Brian Williams was directed to the Texas governor and focused on his record of creating jobs in the Lonestar State. A tanned and smiling Perry jumped right in, boasting that during his time in Austin he helped create 1 million jobs by “freeing the American entrepreneur” from the stranglehold of government.
When the same question was directed to former Gov. Mitt Romney, he bragged that while he was in charge of his small New England state, “He created more jobs in Massachusetts than this President did across the entire nation.”
The moderator pressed Romney on his job creation record during his tenure as head of Bain Capital. Sensing an opportunity, Perry quickly quipped that Romney “did a fine job of creating jobs” for the rest of the world, but not in America. Without flinching and wearing a wry smile, Romney said Perry was only able to create jobs because of his state’s rich oil and gas natural resources—something that Perry cannot take credit for. “That’s like Al Gore saying he created the Internet” joked Romney, to the pleasure of the capacity crowd.
Although the focus of the night was clearly Romney and Perry, many of the candidates were still able to leave their marks on the evening. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich struggled at times to get the attention of the moderators, but made the most of his limited opportunities. His succinct and articulate responses were well-received by the audience. At one point during the debate, the cerebral former House speaker chided the evening’s moderators for trying to start infighting among the candidates, a comment which was met with strong applause.
Health care reform was a topic of importance, as was expected. Every candidate opposed the individual mandate and stated that the repealing of ObamaCare would be a top priority for his or her administration. Congresswoman Bachmann was the most outspoken on the issue the entire evening, insisting time was running out to end the march toward socialized medicine.
“ObamaCare is killing jobs” and is the worst of all federal regulations, Bachmann continued, as the other candidates nodded in support.
Congressman Ron Paul had his usual vocal supporters in the audience and lining the streets of Simi Valley as visitors approached the presidential library. Moderator Williams asked Paul several limited-government questions about abolishing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). “Don’t say that those of us who support liberty are not compassionate people,” said Paul, as he explained how getting rid of the minimum-wage laws would help the poorest of American citizens.
And while Paul often dominates the topic of taxes, tonight it was Herman Cain who stole the show. All of Cain’s answers on the evening were solution-focused, and none was more well-received than his 9-9-9 Plan—9% Income Tax, 9% National Sales Tax and 9% Capital Gains Tax. In a comment that drew laughter, Cain said that if 10% was good enough for God, then the government can get by with less.
Lost in the mix were former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Both candidates struggled to gain traction, but they were nothing more than an afterthought in the minds of the moderators and the audience.
Although questions from the moderators covered a broad range of topics, including education, immigration reform and energy dependence, the candidates were quick to pivot back to the topics of the economy and job creation at every opportunity.
Ultimately debates are dominated by sound bites, and here are a few of the evening’s best:
“We are an energy-rich nation, but we are living like we are energy-poor.”—Gov. Mitt Romney, on the issue of energy independence.
“This is a Ponzi scheme and a monstrous lie to our kids. We know it. The American people know it, and so do America’s 20- and 30-year-olds.”—Gov. Rick Perry, on Social Security.
“We can’t run from Science. When we make comments that do no reflect the reality of a situation, we turn people off.”—Gov. Huntsman, on man-made global warming.
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