Rick Perry versus Mitt Romney: Thursday night, it was no contest.
People from Texas often say that, while they don't dislike Perry, he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer. With every debate, that criticism has been validated, with Thursday night the most egregious example of Perry's intellect simply not being at the level of others on the stage. It's no coincidence that Perry's poll numbers have fallen after each prior debate, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Mitt Romney recover the lead in various GOP polls over the next several days following Perry's disastrous performance.
To be sure, Perry was being attacked from across the stage, though it seemed less than in the prior debate. His problem was two-fold: His answers were mediocre and stumbling, and his attacks on Mitt Romney were deftly thwarted by just two words from Romney: "Nice try."
Perry has a huge problem on the issue of illegal immigration. He is credible when it comes to the issue of border security, but his opponents' talking points on "bi-national health insurance" and subsidizing Texas' public universities for illegal alien residents of Texas are devastating. Now, bi-national health insurance may be a reasonable idea -- basically allowing private insurance policies to cover treatments in either country, which could be very useful for people who live on one side of the border and work on the other, of whom there are many in southern Texas. Nevertheless, just the term "bi-national health insurance" will sound terrible to many GOP primary voters who won't dig any further into what it means.
And that's the defensible one. Subsidizing education for illegal aliens, even if they were brought here by their parents, is bad policy. It is a magnet for illegals with children to move to Texas. Furthermore -- and it's amazing that in two debates in a row no other candidate has mentioned this -- an illegal with a college degree is still an illegal, and not permitted to work here. So until our immigration or work visa system changes to allow such a person to work here, the argument for providing a subsidized education for him or her is extremely weak. Perry also made a huge mistake by saying that people who do not support his efforts to help these illegals are heartless.
Conservatives are rightly sick and tired of being called things like heartless, much less by a Republican presidential hopeful. After all, it's the left's oh-so-heartfelt policies which have sentenced large segments of America to poverty through the chain of the welfare state. That single statement may eventually be looked back on as the death knell of Rick Perry's campaign.
It's also worth noting that Perry had the dumbest line of the night: When debating border control with Rick Santorum, in particular the question of a fence versus patrols, Perry said he would "put...the aviation assets on the ground." It doesn't need to be explained why that's such a poorly worded statement.
Perry and Romney went back and forth about what each of them has said or written in the past about Social Security and health care. While it's hard to put a finger on it, it felt like Romney got the better of those two exchanges. The substance of the charges against each other was fairly similar, but one couldn't help believing that Romney was probably right in what he said about Perry's book, with Perry less certain to be right on the facts in his claims about Romney. Romney's answers were quick, crisp, and confident, and he seemed usually to be looking at Perry when he spoke to him, a move which viewers would take (even if subconsciously) as the behavior of a confident person. Perry on the other hand seemed to have rambling, nearly incoherent answers, and rarely looked at Romney whether criticizing or responding to him. It was the pose of someone unsure of his own words, unsure whether he was in the same league as his competition.
Romney did a fairly good job, for the second time, convincing the audience that Romneycare is different from Obamacare, and that Romney firmly believes that his measure was a state solution only and is not appropriate to be implemented in any similar form at a federal level, in short that health care is not the province of the federal government. He also did something new (at least new to me) when he said that "Our plan in Massachusetts has some good parts, some bad parts, some things I'd change, some things I like about it." Taking responsibility for a mistake is so different from anything our current president does that it probably struck a strong positive note with GOP voters even while he was admitting a mistake.
Overall, it was Romney's style that helped him as much as the substance of his answers. He was distinctly presidential, and it was a sharp contrast to the dark and often downward-looking Rick Perry, who looked and sounded overwhelmed. And on the substance, Romney dealt with criticism very well, not just from Perry, but parrying a question from Fox's Bret Baier about the Wall Street Journal's criticism of Romney's tax plan as timid. And indeed it is timid, and Romney stuck with it, arguing for tax cuts for interest, dividends, and capital gains, for people earning under $200,000 a year. This is, at least at where he places the dividing line, something too close to what we might hear from President Obama and plays too much into the left's class warfare rhetoric, offering comfort to the enemy.
It is part of Romney's obvious strategy to avoid moving too far to the right to win the primary and then have to swing hard to the middle for the general election. He's going to play this as close to the middle as possible from the beginning, hoping that he's conservative enough and perceived as electable enough to win the nomination, leaving him in a position where it's slightly harder for Barack Obama to call him a right-wing nut or accuse him of flip-flopping (as Romney is already vulnerable on that charge.) Also, Romney probably knows that if his policy actually gets to a Republican-controlled House (and likely Republican-controlled Senate), that they would strip out that threshold and allow him to sign a bill that offers tax relief to everyone, which is to say to include the people who pay the majority of income taxes in America.
Among the people who can't win the nomination, Herman Cain was probably the debate winner. But there is no doubt that the real winner of Thursday's debate was Mitt Romney and the real loser was Rick Perry.
In political betting at Intrade.com for who will be the Republican nominee, Rick Perry has dropped more than 5 percent in the last 24 hours, from nearly 36 percent to just over 30 percent, his lowest betting odds since officially entering the race. During that same 24 hour period, Mitt Romney has gone from trading just over 38 percent to about 41 percent. This represents a new betting high for Romney, and obviously the biggest gap between the two candidates of the whole campaign. Yes, it is very early, but as we say in the trading business "the trend is your friend" and as of today you'd certainly rather be Mitt Romney than Rick Perry when it comes to achieving your political aspirations.
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