Mitt Romney did very well in last night’s debate — and if he were still leading in the polls, he might well be considered the winner. But he is not leading in the polls. And in presidential debates, a tie goes to the front-runner — which means that Rick Perry came out ahead in last night’s contest.
Perry had a very good night as well. He did not score any knockout punches (though he did take a few effective jabs at Romney), but he didn’t need to. It was Romney who needed to draw blood or see Perry slip up in some significant way. That didn’t happen. And if Romney was counting on Michele Bachmann to take Perry down for him, that didn’t happen either.
Perry effectively introduced himself to the American people, laying out his record and philosophy. He came across as competent, measured and likable. This was particularly evident in what was perhaps the most important exchange of the debate for Perry, when Brian Williams asked him whether he lost any sleep over the number of executions he has presided over in Texas. Perry answered respectfully (even calling Williams “sir”) but forcefully — offering an eloquent defense of the fairness of the process but stating without hesitation: “In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice.” Millions of conservatives cheered. It was a bonding moment for Perry and the conservative base.
There were a few times when Perry seemed to struggle with his answers (particularly on global warming and foreign affairs), and my colleague Michael Gerson sees this as evidence that Perry is “hardly the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan.” He forgets that Ronald Reagan sometimes struggled with answers in his debates. After Reagan’s first debate with Walter Mondale, National Review wrote: “Something certainly threw him off his stride; he rambled, stalled, and huffed nervously throughout the first half of the debate.” Perry was not nearly that bad — and at times he was very good.
While Perry did not commit a gaffe when the discussion turned to Social Security, the Romney campaign smells blood in the water on this issue. Perry is factually correct when he describes Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.” The program does in fact pay off old investors (retirees) with money from new investors (younger workers), but will not have the money to pay the new investors when their time comes to collect. That is a “monstrous lie.” And while Perry made clear that current retirees and those nearing retirement have nothing to worry about, he needs to do a better job make clear that he plans to save Social Security, not end it. As I pointed out in a recent column, the Romney campaign will seek to convince voters that Perry opposes the very idea of Social Security. If Perry does not successfully combat that impression, and allows it to take hold, it will be very hard for Perry to overcome. At some point Romney will turn to Perry and ask him: “Do you believe Social Security should exist?” His answer to that question could decide the race.
Perry accomplished what he needed to last night, and that makes him the winner. But he has four more debates in the next five weeks — plenty of time to build on his performance but also plenty of time for his opponents to trip him up.
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