By sticking to the right-wing themes that have made him the toast of the Tea Party, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas strengthened his front-runner status and hold on the Republican Party’s conservative base during his first appearance in a presidential debate Wednesday night.
The longest-serving governor in Texas history used the nearly two-hour nationally televised debate to blast Social Security as a Ponzi scheme, dismiss the science behind global warming, and call for a beefed-up military presence along the U.S.-Mexican border, including the use of predator drones to surveil illegal immigrants.
After his late entrance in the Republican presidential contest last month, Perry almost immediately leapfrogged over former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney in the polls and has largely brushed aside Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who until then commanded substantial support from the Tea Party and other conservatives.
Last night, Perry and Romney went toe-to-toe over who had the stronger record of job creation in the opening minutes of the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, California. Perry belittled Romney’s record as less impressive than that of former Democratic Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis; Romney pointed out that Perry’s job-creation record didn’t measure up to that of George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas.
At one point, Romney retorted that Texas — unlike Massachusetts — has been blessed with abundant natural resources, low taxes, and a long-standing regulatory environment that is friendly to business.
“Those are wonderful things, but Governor Perry doesn’t believe that he created those things,” Romney said. “If he tried to say that, well, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.”
There was little doubt throughout the evening that Perry and Romney were the top-tier contenders, as recent polls confirmed, while Bachmann and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, another favorite of conservatives, were mostly relegated to the sidelines.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and Romney, to a lesser extent, competed for more centrist voters in the Republican Party, which public opinion polls suggest are a vanishing breed.
NBC News moderator Brian Williams at the outset of the debate sought to make jobs and President Obama’s performance in managing the economy the central focus of the political clash. But the initial parries by Perry and Romney – the two candidates leading in the polls among likely Republican voters – varied little from their performance on the campaign trail in recent weeks.
Romney repeated his claim that as a former investment banker with Bain Capital, he knows what it takes to create jobs in the private sector -- unlike President Obama. “This president is a nice guy, but he doesn’t have a clue about how to get this country working again,” Romney said. “The president doesn’t understand how the economy works. I do.”
Perry touted his record in Texas, claiming its economy has soared while the rest of the nation has floundered during Obama’s presidency. “We created 1 million jobs in Texas at the same time that America lost 2.5 million,” he said.
One of the clearest distinctions between Perry and Romney was their positions on Social Security. After Perry twice repeated his claim that the government pension program for the nation’s elderly was a Ponzi scheme, Romney cautioned the Texas governor that “you can’t say that to tens of millions of Americans who have lived on it and plan to live on it. We need a president who is committed to saving Social Security.”
Perry and Romney did agree on one thing, however – that they would not reappoint Ben Bernanke to another term as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board if they were president. Perry made that clear on the campaign trail when he said that Bernanke would encounter “ugly” treatment in Texas for his monetary policies, and Romney last night said he would definitely seek a replacement as well.