Republican race: Michelle Bachmann loses ground as Perry and Romney clash
There were eight people on stage, but it looks increasingly like a two-horse race. Rick Perry and Mitt Romney publicly traded blows for the first time last night, in a debate between Republican presidential candidates which suggests that their rivalry will now dominate the weeks and months ahead.
The growing crystalisation of the race around Romney and Perry is bad news for their rivals, most notably Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party favourite and star of the previous two debate.
She made little impact last night, and her campaign is fast losing momentum, with its major strategist Ed Rollins having quit this week.
The duo clashed on a wide range of issues including social security, healthcare, and job creation. They challenged each other’s previous legisaltive records, and demonstated a growing willingness to shoot from the hip, even if that means being reduced to exchanging headline-friendly insults.
Perry, the Governor of Texas, has moved quickly to favouritism after announcing his bid for the White House last month. But yesterday’s two-hour debate was his first major test. It also represented the first time many Americans have seen him on a national platform.
He did not entirely steal the show. But neither did he commit any major blunders, despite facing criticism from almost every other candidate, along with tough questions from the chair. At one point, Perry said the debate had left him feeling like a “pinata.”
On the economy, the issue dominating the national agenda, Perry delivered a confident sales pitch that majored on achievements during his time in office. He said that his light regulation and commitment to low taxes had produced strong job growth in Texas at a time when the country is faltering.
The debate was held at the Ronald Reagan Library, north-west of Los Angeles. Perry, who has broad-shoulders and a Texan swagger, is occasionally compared to the former President; they share everything from a haircut to an solid ability to read the Republican base.
But Romney, the former Governor of Massachussetts whose position as favourite was usurped by Perry, wasn’t about to let him have things entirely his own way. He appears to be, hoping that his rival’s bombast will create problems for him further down the line.
At times, the tone of the debate descended into the realm of tit for tat. “We created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts," Perry said of Romney, early in the discussion.
Romney responded by arguing that Perry had been the fortunate beneficiary of a Republican legislature and of Texas’s vast oil and gas resources. To claim credit for that good fortune “would be like Al Gore saying he invented the internet,” he joked.
Perry, who (to his embarassment) worked on Gore’s presidential election campaign in 1988, rose to the bait. "Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt," he said, regarding Romney’s unpopular predecessor "George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you," Romney replied. "That's not correct," Perry countered.
The exchange suggests that Romney believes there is capital to be gained from subjecting Perry’s record as Governor of Texas to scrutiny. For all the talk about low unemployment, the Lone Star State has some of the country’s lowest high-school graduation rates and worst poverty. One in four residents lack health insurance, the highest ratio in the US.
Romney’s camp also believe that Perry’s stance on social security could become a major stumbling block. The system – America’s version of national insurance – is financially strained and a major hurdle to balancing the national budget. To that end, Perry has often previsouly called it a “Ponzi scheme.”
Asked about whether he wanted to stand by that criticism, Perry said: “You cannot keep the status quo in place and not call it anything other than a Ponzi schem. That is what it is. Americans know that... Maybe it's time to have some provocative language in this country.”
However social security also happens to be extremely popular, with polls suggesting that almost 60 per cent of even Republican voters support it. With this in mind, Stuart Stevens, Mr Romney’s chief strategist, said Perry’s hardline comments made him "unelectable" nationally. "No one has ever won an election taking [Perry’s] position,” he said after the debate.
The Romney camp will also take heart from an exchange towards the end of the debate in which Perry, an evangelical Christian who has publicly questioned the theory of evolution, was asked about his attitude to science.
He insisted that “plenty of scientists” questioned the science behind global warming, but when asked, was unable to name a single one. Then he said: “Just because you have a group of scientists who have stood up and said ‘Here’s the fact?’ Galileo got outnumbered for a spell.” The analogy was questionable, since Galileo’s opponents were not actually scientists.
Yet despite the wobbles, polls suggest that Perry remains the marginal front-runner. His communications director Ray Sullivan said afterwards that: “he emerged from the debate stronger than he came in, and he came into it in a prety strong position." Perry also got the biggest cheer of the night, when the audience of Republican voters werre told that he had executed more prisoners than any Governor in US history.
Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman who is fourth in the polls, spent plenty of time at the microphone. But his eccentric position on several issues (at one point, he declared that the US border fence might, during an unspecified apocalyptic scenario, be used to imprison Americans in their own country) gives him little chance of gaining mainstream traction.
The other four candidates, Hermann Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman, are struggling to remain part ofthe conversation. Huntsman, the former Governor of Utah who was perhaps the most Presidential of the selection, is considered too much of a centrist to win the race, but could yet be chosen as a running-mate.
Independent News Service