They may have started the night fighting over Social Security, but by the end of the first-ever CNN/Tea Party Republican Debate on Monday, it was clear former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry were in it to pick each other apart before the American public.
The two front runners, clearly intended to stay in the spotlight — and keep the momentum in the race — trading barbs on everything from entitlements to job creation to immigration.
They had plenty of help from debate moderator Wolf Blitzer who gave Romney and Perry wide berth to engage, allowing them to go over limits for responses and follow-ups. The six other candidates at the debate took on the two leaders as well, in effect keeping them center stage for most of the night.
For the second consecutive debate in a week's time, those candidates were obviously secondary to Romney and Perry. Among them were Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Utah Gov. and former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
When Perry began to talk Social Security, saying he thought a national conversation would be important, Romney zipped in: “We’re having that right now.”
“You’re running for president,” said the former Massachusetts governor.
At one point asked about Perry' strong job-creation record – Texas has added a million jobs during Perry’s tenure – Romney said Perry was lucky.
“If you’re dealt four aces, that doesn’t make you, necessarily, a great poker player,” Romney said, referring to Texas’s GOP-led legislature, conservative labor laws and ack of an income tax.
Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman, also delivered his own zinger against his home-state governor. In a question about Texas jobs, Paul argued that Perry was “not quite” due the credit he’s received, and accused Perry of having raised taxes.
“I would put a little damper on this but I don’t want to offend the governor because he might raise my taxes or something,” Paul said to laughter from the audience.
Attacks on Perry by other Republicans vying for the party’s nomination included a suggestion that his policies were influenced by campaign donors. The debate’s spirited nature highlighted the campaign’s increasingly combative tone.
Perry shot back, defending his record and positions, particularly in give-and-takes with his closest competitor Romney.
Jon Huntsman took didn't get many chances to speak, and when he did, he used some of the time to appeal for civility. Asked if any options should be off the table when it comes to dealing with entitlements, Huntsman responded: “I don’t think anything should be off the table except maybe some of the drama that’s been on this floor today.”
Meanwhile, Romney and Perry did anything but stay away from each other. Romney went on the attack against Perry immediately, challenging the Texas governor on whether he “continues to believe that Social Security should not be a federal program … or does he retreat from that view.”
Perry started the discussion of Social Security calling himself a truth-teller, and reassuring current retirees, “The people who are on Social Security today need to understand something, slam-dunk guaranteed: That program is gonna be in place.”
Perry said we have to “fix it so that our young Americans that are going out into the workforce” will be able to benefit from the program.”
But under attack from Romney, Perry softened his rhetoric if not his position on Social Security, declining to repeat earlier statements questioning the program's constitutionality and likening it to a "Ponzi scheme."
"A program that's been there 70 or 80 years, obviously we're not going to take that away," Perry said as his rival pressed him repeatedly to answer pointed questions.The Texas governor counter-attacked quickly, accusing Romney of "trying to scare seniors" with his own comments on a program that tens of millions of Americans — including millions in Florida alone — rely on for part or even all of their retirement income.
Romney took a shot against Perry's book, “Fed Up!” — where Perry called the program unconstitutional.
“Gov. Perry pointed out that in his view, Social Security is not constitutional,” Romney said.
Perry dismissed Romney, saying a discussion of Social Security was necessary : “If what you’re saying is that back in the ‘30s and the ‘40s, the federal government made all the right decisions, I disagree with you.”
CNN and the Tea Party Express, a leading national tea party organization, teamed up to put on the event. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer moderated and questions also were coming from tea party activists, supporters in the audience and voters at locations in Arizona, Ohio and Virginia.
The debate unfolded in the Florida city where Republicans will gather next summer to bestow the party nomination on a challenger to President Barack Obama.
Bachmann, a heroine of the Tea Party movement, is working to win back the support of the activists who had fueled a rise in the polls for her before Perry entered the race.
She highlighted her fiscally conservative credentials throughout, touting her vocal opposition in Congress to the health care, financial regulation and economic stimulus laws supported by the Obama administration.
“It’s easy to turn around this economy, you just have the backbone to do it,” she said.
She attacked Perry for a 2007 executive order he issued in Texas requiring that pre-teenage girls get vaccinations against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus -- commonly known as HPV -- that causes cervical cancer.
Bachmann suggested that Perry signed the order to reward Merck & Co., the company that makes the vaccine known as Gardasil, which had contributed to his campaign and employed a former top aide of Perry’s as its chief lobbyist.
“The question is, is it about life or was it about millions of dollars, and potentially billions, for a drug company?” Bachmann said.
Perry responded by saying that Merck had donated $5,000 to his gubernatorial campaign -- an amount dwarfed by the millions he has raised. “If you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended,” Perry said.
Bachmann is seeking to regain traction as a viable candidate as the poll suggests the race is becoming a two-way contest between Romney and Perry.
In a CNN/ORC International poll released today, Perry led in the Republican race with support from 30 percent of Americans surveyed, followed by Romney with 18 percent. Bachmann received 4 percent, placing seventh. Those running ahead of her included former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the party’s 2009 vice presidential nominee who hasn’t said yet whether she will run for the White House.
Series of Endorsements
Before tonight’s debate, Romney and Perry released a series of endorsements aimed at highlighting their backing within the party.
Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out of the race after losing the Aug. 13 Republican Straw Poll in Iowa, endorsed Romney and accepted a position as the campaign’s national co-chairman.
“Alone among the contenders, he possesses the unique qualifications to confront and master our severe economic predicament,” Pawlenty said of Romney in a news release.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal will back Perry, CNN reported today, giving the Texas governor his first major endorsement.
The candidates heaped criticism on Obama, attacking the $447 billion job-creation plan his administration sent to Congress today.
Democrats worry that Obama, 50, is politically vulnerable in next year’s election with the unemployment rate at 9.1 percent last month and approval ratings near lows of his presidency.
Since World War II, no U.S. president has won re-election with a jobless rate above 6 percent, with the exception of Reagan, who faced 7.2 percent unemployment on Election Day in 1984 after the rate had dropped more than three percentage points during the previous two years he was in office.
The median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg predicts a rate at 8.6 percent in the third quarter of next year, just prior to the election.
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