Texas Gov. Rick Perry seemed to lose steam again Thursday night under withering criticism from his GOP debate rivals -- especially former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who battered him again over Social Security and illegal immigration.
Said Romney during the GOP debate in Orlando, Florida: “There’s a Rick Perry that said, almost quote, that the federal government should not be in the pension business, that [Social Security is] unconstitutional … unconstitutional, and ought to be returned to the states.
“So you better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that,” Romney said directly to Perry, in a riposte that drew laughs.
Perry stuck to his guns and showed the toughness that has made him a political goliath in Lone Star politics, where he’s won 10 elections without a single defeat. But again and again, he had to defend positions that drew a cool response from the Republican audience in Orlando – most notably, on illegal immigration.
At times, Romney seemed determined to show that he could be as aggressive as anyone in the GOP field. He fired a powerful broadside at Perry over his granting of in-state tuition to illegal residents in Texas, for example.
“It’s an argument I just can’t follow,” said Romney. “…If you’re a United States citizen from any other of the 49 states, you have to pay $100,000 more. That doesn’t make sense to me. That kind of magnet draws people into this county to get that education, to get that $100,000 break. It makes no sense.”
Perry aggressively defended his position on in-state tuition. But when he said of any candidate denying similar opportunities to young illegals that: “I don’t think you have a heart,” the crowd audibly booed.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum jumped on Perry over the tuition issue as well.
“Why should they be given preferential treatment as an illegals in this country?” Santorum said. “That’s what we’re saying. So I’d say [Perry] is soft of immigration, the fact that he doesn’t want to build a fence.”
Matt Towery, president and CEO of the nonpartisan InsiderAdvantage firm, said immigration was Perry’s weakest issue.
“Perry is weak on immigration and does not have an answer,” Towery told Newsmax after the debate.
Towery predicted Romney’s performance may be sufficient to vault the former Massachusetts governor back into the No. 1 spot in the polls. Perry, who has much less debate experience than Romney, appeared “very disorganized and unprepared for a front-runner,” he said.
“The one who suffered tonight was Perry,” Towery added. “I mean, he took it on the chops on immigration, he didn’t seem loose, he didn’t seem as aggressive as he was before. Romney clearly won this debate.”
Longtime GOP political operative Roger Stone concurred that Romney “had a good night.”
“Romney was relaxed and I think very deft with the counterpunch,” said Stone. “He gets a little smarmy after a while, but I thought he had a good night.”
Stone and Towery also agreed on which candidate appeared to be the night’s big casualty: Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party favorite.
“The candidate who was the biggest loser in my judgment was Michele Bachmann,” Towery said. “She didn’t get a lot of time, she was desperate to get her answers in, and they had a tepid reception for the most part.”
Stone was even more blunt in his evaluation. “Michele Bachmann’s 15 minutes are over. She really needs to fold her tent. It’s just not going anywhere,” he said.
Other highlights from the debate:·
- Towery said the second-tier candidates all comported themselves well, adding former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman “had a big comeback.” That could prove troublesome for Romney, who needs to win decisively in New Hampshire. Polls show Huntsman is gaining ground there.
- Stone says a Romney nomination “virtually assures” a third-party candidate will enter the race. “I don’t know why any conservative in their right mind could support Mitt Romney, because he’s entirely phony. I understand that he mouths the words, but look at the record,” he said.
- Perry’s performance may disappoint conservatives who wanted to see an improved performance from him. Before the debate, National Review editor and columnist Ramesh Ponnuru had said on MSNBC that Perry needed to step up his game. “In the previous debates Gov. Perry has come across as unprepared. He hasn’t had crisp, convincing responses to predictable lines of attack,” Ponnuru said on MSNBC Thursday. “And I think, not just my colleagues at National Review, but a lot of Republican voters who are interested in electability and like a lot about Gov. Perry’s record, are going to want to see him step up.”
- Rep. Ron Paul got some of the loudest applause early in the evening when he pledged to veto any bill that violated 10th Amendment constraints on big government.
- The laugh line of the night went to former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. Commenting on the Obama administration’s efforts to stimulate the economy, he remarked: “My next door neighbors’ two dogs have created more shovel ready jobs than this administration.”
- Thursday’s debate is expected to be more influential than earlier ones, due in large part to the collective audience firepower of Fox News, Google, and YouTube.
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