Midway through Wednesday’s forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Perry joked, “I kind of feel like a piñata here at the party.” It was an acknowledgement that as the new leader in the polls for the GOP nomination, Perry drew more attacks and more critical questions than any of the other candidates.
But he did as much to stick his rivals as they did to him. He went after the other candidates with relish, whether in response to their criticisms or preemptively. He stood by some of his most controversial statements, including his view that Social Security is a “monstrosity.” At other times, he slipped past questions calling into question his record in Texas.
Many of his exchanges were with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the erstwhile front-runner for the GOP nomination until Perry got into the race last month. That produced a Romney who was more animated than in the first three debates, creating the impression that, for now, the Perry vs. Romney dynamic is the dominant theme of the Republican nomination contest.
Polls have shown that Perry and Romney are well ahead of any of the others in the race. But it took Wednesday’s debate — preceded by questions about Perry’s staying power and preparation for a national race, and about Romney’s ability to respond to a serious Republican rival — to demonstrate that both candidates are ready to battle it out for the foreseeable future.
The other candidates will have to muscle their way into the conversation, and several tried. But visually, the organizers from NBC and Politico set the stage in a way that emphasized the narrowing of the Republican race in the last few weeks. Perry and Romney stood next to one another at the center of the stage, with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) on Romney’s right and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) on Perry’s left.
The focus throughout the evening was on Perry, who was still untested as a national candidate. One of the most revealing moments came when he was asked about his belief, expressed in his 2010 book, “Fed Up!,” that Social Security was a failure and a giant “Ponzi scheme.”
Rather than back away or soften his comments, as some candidates might have done, the Texas governor didn’t flinch over his conclusions, even when it was pointed out that former vice president Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, former White House senior adviser in the George W. Bush administration, had criticized him for such language. He dismissed Rove, who was also an adviser to Perry earlier in his career, and said he disagreed with Cheney.
“I don’t care what anyone says,” he responded, arguing that the system is in such shaky financial shape that young workers cannot count on its benefits. “We know that, the American people know that, but, more importantly, those 25- and 30-year-olds know that.”