Perry was on defense for much of the debate but did not become rattled or make a gaffe that could sidetrack his campaign. He eased back from controversial earlier comments on Social Security and the Federal Reserve while deflecting criticism where possible.
Perry’s rivals questioned his claims about Texas job creation, his stance on illegal immigrants and an executive order he gave as governor, which he admitted was a mistake, that young girls be vaccinated for a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer.
He repeatedly tangled with Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who pushed him again and again to expound on his positions. When Mr. Perry tried to flick away the questions, Mr. Romney declared: “We’re running for president.”
Romney said Perry’s record on job creation in Texas, which has outpaced most other states in adding new jobs, was the result of Perry’s lack of an income tax, its broad natural resources and other factors rather than his policies.
“I think Governor Perry would agree with me that if you’re dealt four aces that doesn’t make you necessarily a great poker player,” Romney said.
Perry softened his recent harsh criticism of the Social Security retirement program and said he wanted to start “a legitimate conversation” about its future. Perry launched the fight last week when he called Social Security a Ponzi scheme and a “monstrous lie.”
“The term Ponzi scheme I think is over the top and unnecessary and frightful to many people,” said Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who pressed Perry on whether he still believed the retirement program should be shifted to the states and ended as a federal program.
“Rather than trying to scare seniors, like you’re doing and other people, it’s time to have a legitimate conversation about how to fix that program so it’s not bankrupt,” Perry said, promising to keep benefits for those who are now retired or close to it.
The rapid rise of Mr. Perry, who joined the race only a month ago, made him a central target for his Republican rivals.
U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann, whose campaign has faded badly in the last month after winning a straw poll in Iowa, targeted Perry over his executive order on the vaccine program in Texas.
After Mr. Perry repeated his lament that it was a mistake to have required the vaccination with an executive order rather than through legislation, Mrs. Bachmann said: “To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong.”
She accused him of issuing the order because his former chief of staff was a lobbyist for Merck & Co, the company that made the drug.
“This is just flat-out wrong. The question is, is it about life, or was it about millions of dollars and potentially billions for a drug company?” asked Bachmann, who has seen Perry rob her of much of her religious and social conservative support.
Representative Ron Paul of Texas also took a shot at Mr. Perry when asked whether he deserved credit for his economic record in Texas. “I would put a little damper on this,” Mr. Paul said, “but I don’t want to offend the governor, because he might raise my taxes or something.”
To make matters worse for Perry, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin added her voice in support of Bachmann’s to criticize Perry after the debate was over. “That’s crony capitalism,” she said of Perry’s mandate in an appearance on Fox News. “That’s part of the problem that we have in this country is that people are afraid, even in our own party, to call one another out on that. True reform and fighting the corruption and fighting the crony capitalism is a tough thing to do within your own party.”
Nonetheless, Perry scored his biggest punch of the night when he accused Romney of scare tactics, a complaint usually lodged by Republicans against Democrats on the issue of Social Security.
“Rather than trying to scare seniors like you’re doing and other people, it’s time to have a legitimate conversation in this country about how to fix that program where it’s not bankrupt and our children actually know that there’s going to be a retirement program there for them,” Perry said. [via The New York Times, Reuters and Huff Post]