Rick Perry came into his first GOP presidential debate and did what any frontrunner needs to do: avoid any serious gaffes. He may not have had the strongest answer to every question he was asked, but Perry seemed to fight Romney, at the very least, to a draw when the two went toe-to-toe. But, as they say, let's go to the videotape.
Via Hot Air, here's the early exchange on jobs:
"We created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he did in four years in Massachusetts," Perry jabbed.
“States are different," Romney replied. "Texas is a great state. Texas has zero income tax, Texas is a right to work state, a Republican legislature, a Republican Supreme Court,” Romney said. “Texas has a lot of oil and gas in the ground, those are wonderful things, but the governor doesn’t believe he created those things. If he tried to say that, it’d be like Al Gore saying he created the Internet." Romney said he came into tough circumstances and turned Massachusetts around.
"Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt," Perry said.
"Well, as a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor," Romney retorted.
The back-and-forth on jobs seemed to be a draw, but it's not obvious how Romney's and Perry's debate over Social Security will play out.
"Anybody who's for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids," Perry said, defending his previous writings on the entitlement program. "And it's not right."
Romney pounced on Perry:
"In the book Fed Up, governor, you say that by any measure Social Security is a failure. You can't say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security... The governor says states should be able to opt out of Social Security. Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security but who's committed to saving Social Security. We've always had at the heart of our party a recognition that we want to care for those in need. And our seniors have the need of Social Security. I will make sure that we keep the program and we make it financially secure. We save Social Security. And under no circumstances would I say by any measure that it's a failure. It is working for millions of Americans, and I will keep it working for millions of Americans."
"You cannot keep the status quo in place and call it anything other than a Ponzi scheme," Perry replied. "That is what it is. Americans know that. And regardless of what anyone says--'Oh, it's not, and that's provocative language'--maybe it's time to have some provocative language...."
So who won this round? In the Republican primary, it seems Perry would have the edge as a fiscal hawk. But in a general election? Perry's stark rhetoric could scare seniors. Romney strongly implied that Perry wanted to abolish or significantly change Social Security for current beneficiaries, and Perry didn't rebut that charge. (Romney's campaign was more explicit--and demagogic. It sent out a press release with the subject line: "PERRY DOES NOT BELIEVE SOCIAL SECURITY SHOULD EXIST.")
Perry simply defended his use of "provocative language" without directly rebutting Romney or emphasizing the point he made at the beginning of his remarks that seniors shouldn't worry about changes to Social Security. That seems like a mistake. Entitlement reform will only have a shot if most current beneficiaries are reasonably reassured that their benefits will continue, and that the program will be reformed for future generations. That's a big reason why the House GOP budget doesn't change Medicare for people 55 and older. Perry did a fine job in this debate and remains the frontrunner, but he might want to hone his message on entitlement reform.