"I kinda feel like the piñata at the party," said Rick Perry as he fought off swings from all sides at Wednesday's debate. That produced the only excitement in an otherwise lackluster event, full of tired gimmicks such as questions from Twitter users and the appearance of a Telemundo journalist to ask Hispanic-related questions. NBC's debate looked drab compared to Fox's last one.
Perry seemed to survive his debate debut, the principal source of drama for the evening. His performance was neither impeccable nor disastrous. At the very least he didn't pull a Pawlenty. He seized his chance to nail Mitt Romney, introducing one interesting piece of information into the conversation: that "Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt." A bit stung, Romney rejoined that "George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor."
Romney said that his business experience makes him more qualified than "career politicians" to create jobs as president. But Perry took some air out of his balloon by pointing out that that business experience didn't help Romney create jobs in Massachusetts. It ranked near the bottom of the country in that category. Perry noted that Texas had created more jobs in a few months than the Bay State under Romney created in four years. Romney tried to explain quickly the difficulties of governing in a liberal state but primary voters probably don't care about Romney's misfortune.
Romney, though smooth enough for most of the debate, played a dangerous game by cheap-shotting Perry on Social Security. How dare Perry call Social Security a "Ponzi scheme," said Romney, who presented himself as a champion of Social Security and Perry as a destroyer of it. But Social Security is a Ponzi scheme for the young and Perry properly stood by his remark and calls for Social Security reform.
Of course, the media perked up at Romney's line of attack and now see him in a new and welcome light. A few journalists ventured to say that Romney won the debate and improved his chances of nomination, as they gushed over his robust defense of Social Security. But how does that stance possibly help Romney stop Perry's momentum in the primaries? Primary voters won't be offended by Perry's insistence that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme in need of serious reform. Already suspicious of Romney on health care, they won't take kindly to his establishment-style scare-mongering against Perry on Social Security. That line of attack just reinforces Romney's shaky credentials as a conservative. Then again, Romney may not care about this; by going for Perry's jugular on Social Security, he has clearly decided to win as the establishment candidate.
By standing his ground and asserting that the problems of the country are severe enough to justify "provocative" stances, Perry appears far more exciting than a moderate Republican preserver of Social Security as we know it. To be uncowed by establishment expectations doesn't hurt Perry at all. When one of the moderators tried to throw a Karl Rove quote in his face, he succinctly and cuttingly replied, "I am not responsible for Karl anymore."
Sedate moderator John Harris came close to a Katie Couric moment with Perry, asking him to name scientists whom he trusts on the subject of global warming. Perry didn't name any but made the sensible point that the science isn't settled and that wrecking one's economy for the sake of an unsettled theory is stupid. A nastier and more ambitious questioner probably would have insisted that Perry come up with one anti-global warming scientist's name. Harris let the matter drop. Irritating the mainstream media even more, Perry threw the name of one of their heroes into the mix for the benefit of his point, saying that Galileo was "outvoted" in his time by fellow scientists.
The piñata was hit a few times, but it didn't fall to the ground.
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