SIMI VALLEY – Getting to know Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his record was one of the consistent themes of the GOP presidential debate Wednesday night at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. At times, the debate almost felt like an indictment of Lone Star state chief executive, given the questions and challenges directed his way. In the end, Mr. Perry’s performance was good enough to sustain his front-runner status, but probably not enough of a blockbuster to clear the field of other candidates, some of whom are within striking distance.
Aside from Gov. Perry, the other front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, finished with a safe but not standout performance, whereas former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain held the spotlight at various points of the debate, perhaps positioning either for a vice presidential role.
The biggest loser of the night was Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, in part because she really needed a strong performance at this juncture to lift her struggling standing in the polls. She just did not assert herself enough.
Similarly, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum did little to persuade any voters to support his candidacy. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Texas Rep. Ron Paul held their own, but did little to boost their campaigns.
NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, the first moderator, set the tone for the evening with an opening question on jobs and the economy. A recent poll, he said, showed that a majority of people in the country believe the economy is going to get worse before it gets better. Also, a majority believe this is a result of the Republican policies during the first eight years of this century, but also believe President Barack Obama is not taking the country in the right direction.
Gov. Perry responded that economic relief will come when we “free the entrepreneur,” lower the tax burden, free up the capital of businesses and reduce the impact of regulation, allowing businesses to do what they do best: create jobs. Gov. Perry’s jobs message was his strong point, but he also showed signs of a thoughtful military policy when he said, “I don’t think America needs to be in the business of adventurism.”
“Americans don’t want to see their young men and women going into foreign countries without a clear reason that American interests are at stake,” he said. “And they want to see not only a clear entrance; they want to see a clear exit strategy.”
It was surprising that Gov. Perry did not make states rights and, in particular, the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, a bigger issue in the debate, something he speaks frequently about.
The candidate emerging with the most revived campaign in this debate probably would be Mr. Gingrich, who spoke decisively on a variety of topics, be it explaining why he would fire Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke or how the government could best raise revenue by expanding the job base. He also had the biggest applause line of the night, chastising the debate moderators – and the broader media – for attempting to encourage squabbles, or distinctions, among the candidates.
Although he did not get the most microphone time, another winner for the evening was Mr. Cain because he forcefully made the most philosophically conservative points. One example was his detailed explanation of how he would fix the economy. He also made firmly principled comments like, “An individual mandate to buy something is not constitutional” and “government should be out of the business of picking winners and losers.” He also astutely touted the Chilean model of Social Security as a way to reform America’s system.
Ms. Bachmann seemed like little more than wallpaper at times and, , as noted by John Fleischman, who runs the state politics blog Flash Report, “She only spoke when spoken to.”
Rep. Bachmann did offer the most articulate answer – besting a stumbling Gov. Perry – on the question of climate change. Gov. Perry couldn’t seem to go deeper than “jeopardize the economy” when describing the pitfalls associated with government attempting to control the weather. Ms. Bachmann neatly made the point by noting that even President Obama pulled back on Environmental Protection Agency regulations because of the economic harm they would cause.
Like Rep. Bachmann, Mr. Santorum did little to help his campaign in the debate.
Mr. Paul sounded less like the outlier libertarian as he better explained the philosophy to Brian Williams. Would hungry schoolchildren in Texas be denied government-funded food by a libertarian? No, Mr. Paul said, the local governments and people might surely decide that meals for schoolchildren might be just the right thing to do. Mr. Paul’s point is that the federal government should not be the answer to every problem.
Mr. Huntsman’s most interesting and encouraging moment in the debate was when he said, “I think we’ve lost our confidence as a country. I think we have had our innocence shattered. I think, 10 years [after the Sept. 11 attacks], we look at the situation and we say, we have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. This is not about nation-building in Afghanistan. This is about nation-building at home.”
Mr. Romney had a safe showing, emphasizing his credibility on economic matters and his support for Social Security. “My experience, having started enterprises, having helped other enterprises grow and thrive, is what gives me the experience to put together a plan to help restructure the basis of America’s economic foundation so we can create jobs again, good jobs, and compete with anyone in the world.”
Mr. Romney, however, did not inspire confidence that he is the most preferable candidate.
All in all, Mr. Romney, or the other candidates, for that matter, did not pull the newcomer Mr. Perry back into the pack, and the Texas governor can mark one goal reached – he stepped onto a national stage, and his performance was good enough to solidify his candidacy. But, Mitt Romney is very much within striking distance, and the nominating convention is a year away.
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