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.
While it will probably be a few days before new polls are out reflecting the debate, Perry’s folksy rhetoric appeared to be more popular with the conservative audience. When Perry was asked about the 234 Texas inmates who were executed during his tenure as governor, the crowd cheered at the number.
Here are other highlights of last night’s debate:
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas
- On jobs: “What Americans are looking for is someone who can get American working again. ...Free the entrepreneur to do what he or she does, risk their capital... They’re looking for a president who is going to lower the tax burden…and regulation on you, and we’re going to free them to do the job they do best.”
- On Social Security: “It is a monstrous lie. It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our children that this program is going to be there. ...You cannot keep the status quo in place and not call it anything other than a Ponzi scheme.”
- On Texas being the state with the highest proportion of people without health insurance (26%): “Medicaid needs to be block-granted back to the states so we can come up with the best way. …We understand if we get the federal government out of health care, we’ll come up with more ways to treat more people.”
- On immigration: “The first thing you have to do is have boots on the ground. We’ve had a request in since 2009 for 1,000 National Guard and 3,000 Border Patrol [along the Texas-Mexican border]. You can secure the border, but it requires the commitment of the federal government, predator drones.”
- On global warming: “The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that is not settled yet to me is nonsense. I tell somebody, just because you have a group of scientists that say this is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell.”
Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts
- On the fact that Massachusetts ranked 47th in job creation while he was governor: “When I came in as governor, we were in a real free fall. We were losing jobs every month; we had a budget that was way out of balance. …A t the end of the four years we had an unemployment rate down to 4.7 percent – that’s a record I think the president would like to see. And in fact, we created more jobs in Massachusetts than the president has created in the entire country. “
- On criticism that from 1984 until 1999, while he led Bain Capital, the Boston-based private equity group closed some U.S. factories, causing hundreds of layoffs while pocketing huge fees shortly before the companies collapsed: We started businesses at Bain Capital and when we acquired businesses in each case we tried to make them bigger, make them more successful and grow. The idea that somehow you can strip things down and that makes them more valuable is not an effective investment strategy. We tried to make these businesses more successful. By the way they didn’t all work … but we added tens of thousands of jobs to the businesses we helped to support.”
- On Perry’s criticism that Romney had a good private-sector record of creating jobs but a poor public-sector record in Massachusetts compared with Perry’s performance in Texas: “States are different. Texas is a great state. Texas has a zero income tax. Texas has a right-to-work state, a Republican legislature, a Republican Supreme Court. Texas has a lot of oil and gas in the ground.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota
- On President Obama’s health-care reforms: “ObamaCare is killing jobs. We know that from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget, but I know it firsthand from speaking to people. …ObamaCare is clearly leading to job-killing regulations. …If we fail to repeal ObamaCare in 2012, it will be with us forever, and it will be socialized medicine. “
- On domestic exploration of oil and gas: She said investing in domestic oil and gas could lead to 1.2 million jobs, over 50 percent more American energy production, and more than $800 billion in revenue for the federal government. She also quipped again that she could get gas prices down to close to $2 a gallon. “The day President Obama took office, gasoline was $1.79 a gallon. It’s entirely possible for us to get back to inexpensive energy.”
- On why defense spending should not be cut: “We have, for years, maintained global order in the world with our United States military…but in this last debt-ceiling debate, one of the alternatives that came forward that we’re going to be looking at with this new Super Committee…is that our military could be hit with a huge reduction in resources. The President has not done what he needs to do to keep the United States safe.”
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas
- On eliminating the federal minimum wage: “It would help the poor, the people who need jobs. Minimum wage is a mandate. We’re against mandates, so why should we have it?”
- On Bachmann’s pledge to reduce gas prices to $2 per gallon: "I can get you a gallon of gasoline for a dime. You can buy a gallon of gas today for a silver dime. A silver dime is worth $3.50. It’s all about inflation and too many regulations."
- On Perry’s decision to issue an executive order in Texas to inoculate young girls against a virus that causes cervical cancer: “It’s ugly social policy. One of the worst parts about that was the way it was done.”
- On doing away with FEMA and the Transportation Security Administration: “Look at the monstrosity we have at the airports. Sometimes they are accused of sexual activity by the way they maul people at the airport.”
Eric Pianin, Michelle Hirsch, and Jennifer DePaul contributed to this report.