As with last week’s forum, it’s doubtful that Monday’s two-hour exchange will fundamentally alter the trajectory of the GOP race. But it signaled that, as long as Perry is leading opinion surveys, he is likely to be challenged by his rivals from both the left and the right.
Romney led the charge on Social Security and the economy. But Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr., former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and at times Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) tried to derail the campaign of the candidate who has leapt to the top of the polls since his entry last month.
Bachmann appeared especially eager to take Perry down, having had her own campaign damaged by his candidacy. During the two-hour debate, co-hosted by CNN and the Tea Party Express, Bachmann looked to reclaim her standing as the favorite of tea party activists and to prompt doubts about Perry’s bona fides.
Perry stood his ground throughout the evening, whether on Social Security or questions raised about Romney on his job-creation record in Texas. On immigration, he affirmed his opposition to building a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border and his support for providing in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants — but the issue threatens to continue to dog him in the race.
Only on his support for vaccinating young girls against cervical cancer did he allow that he would do things differently if he could. But he said he was motivated by the need to save lives. That did not satisfy his rivals.
The debate helped to underscore divisions between the establishment and tea party wings of the party, and the battle for tea party support will continue to be an important subplot of the nomination fight.
On Social Security, Romney and Perry picked up where they left off last week. Romney challenged Perry to to say whether he still stood by what he wrote in his recent book about turning the federal retirement program over to the states.
He accused the Texas governor of scaring senior citizens by calling the program a “Ponzi scheme” and an “absolute failure.” Perry said it was Romney trying to scare people with his criticism.
Perry went to some lengths to soften some of his previous remarks. In his opening words on the topic, he sought to assure those who are receiving Social Security and those who are close to retirement. He promised a “slam-dunk guarantee” that neither group would see its benefits cut. But for younger workers, he said it is essential for the country to face the program’s financial problems.