Under a withering barrage of tough questions that left Texas Gov. Rick Perry feeling “like the pinata at the party,” the new Republican front-runner received a bracing welcome to the GOP 2012 debate arena and turned in a surprisingly strong performance that most commentators agreed probably solidified his standing as the GOP front-runner.
“Rick Perry did well in the sense that he held his own, proved to be a little more thoughtful than the press had portrayed him,” remarked conservative columnist and InsiderAdvantage CEO Matt Towery, “and really scored big on the death penalty at the end.”
Perhaps the sharpest exchange of the night came over Perry’s description of Social Security in a recent book as an “illegal Ponzi scheme.” But the combative Lone Star governor stuck by his guns on the issue, saying that it “is just a lie” for anyone to tell younger Americans that they will receive Social Security in its current form.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney moved in to criticize Perry for saying Social Security is a failure.
Addressing Perry directly, Romney said: “You can’t say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security, and those who have lived on it. The governor says, ‘Look, states ought to be able to opt out of Social Security.’ Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security, but is committed to saving Social Security. We have always had at the heart of our party a recognition that we want to care for those in need. And our seniors have the need of Social Security.”
Towery says Romney clearly held his own as well. “I thought Romney did well in the sense that he knows that he is in second place,” he said. “His answers were very coherent. I thought he played a bit more to the tea party side, but I don’t understand why he won’t just say, ‘Hey, there are no differences.”
Pundits generally praised the performances of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who again took on the media for trying to sow division among GOP candidates, and Rep. Michele Bachmann, for presenting herself as poised and presidential.
The big issue going into the debate was whether Perry could deliver a strong enough performance to convince establishment Republicans to support him and ramp up donations to his campaign.
“The answer is yes,” Towery said unequivocally. “He acquitted himself well tonight. And listen, there’s nothing wrong with being the piñata, as long as you’re not broken. And he left that debate without any candy coming out of him.”
Before the debate, longtime political journalist Howard Fineman said on MSBNC that Romney’s camp hoped Perry would falter without an obvious push from Romney.
“They want somebody to slow Rick Perry down. They don’t necessarily yet want it to be Mitt Romney.
Fineman said the Romney camp thought Perry was thin-skinned, adding: “They believe if he’s asked enough tough questions by whomever… that he might make some kind of gaffe.”
Romney’s team may be reappraising Perry’s ability in the debating arena, following his performance Wednesday.
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