Mitt Romney won Wednesday night’s GOP presidential debate over newcomer Rick Perry, but not by much. Based on what I heard and saw, we’re in for a long and compelling contest between the two candidates at the front of the pack.
Romney won, I thought, for two main reasons, both of them noteworthy but neither of them definitive at this point:
First, Romney came prepared with new ways to disarm the Texas governor’s job-creation boasts without being seen as “messing with Texas.” He didn’t try to disparage the quality of the state’s many new jobs, as Democrats have done — just to question exactly how much Perry had to do with them. When Perry took the first shot, putting down Romney’s record on jobs as Massachusetts’ governor, first Romney defended his record as the work of a turnaround artist who stopped a free-falling state and got it rolling in the right direction. Then he went after Perry:
States are different. Texas is a great state. Texas has zero income tax, Texas is a right to work state, a Republican legislature, a Republican Supreme Court. 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.
The clear message: Texas’ success predates Perry and surpasses his influence. Then, when Perry responded with a line we’ve heard before — that Michael Dukakis had a better job-creation record in Massachusetts than Romney did — Romney was ready with this response: “George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, governor.”
A check of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows Texas added 1.7 million jobs during Bush’s time as governor (January 1995 to December 2000) compared to 1 million since Perry took over from Bush. The BLS data sets only go back to 1993, so we can’t compare the record of Bush’s predecessor, Ann Richards — or those of Romney and Dukakis. (If I find another source, I’ll update this post.)
The second reason Romney won is that he seemed to have his sea legs under him a bit more. After not being challenged very much in the first few debates, Romney was ready to take punches and swing back. He went on offense when necessary, played defense pretty effectively and knew when to stay out of the scrum: He made a smart decision not to pile onto Perry about the Gardisil issue, simply pointing out that Perry had already admitted it was a mistake, but without arguing against the other candidates who’d laid blows on the Texan.
It wasn’t that Perry was nervous or hesitant — on the contrary, he jumped right into the fray and seemed to relish it. He didn’t make any big mistakes. On a few occasions, he looked at the camera — and thus the public — rather than the moderators. He knows how to handle himself in a debate.
What I mean is that Perry didn’t quite seem to be in a groove the way Romney and some of the other candidates — yes, there were six others on the Reagan Library stage — did. By now, we know Michele Bachmann is the focused, on-message assailant of Obamacare; Rick Santorum is the guy most interested in social issues and attacking other candidates’ hesitance about foreign “adventurism” (to use Perry’s word); Newt Gingrich is the guy who questions the questioners for some of their questions and tries to keep the field focused on Obama rather than each other; Herman Cain is the businessman with the businesslike approach; Jon Huntsman is the guy willing to challenge some elements of GOP orthodoxy (and who did far better Wednesday than in his initial debate appearance — maybe enough to register 2 or even 3 percent in the next round of polling!); and Ron Paul is Ron Paul (and, in what turned out to be Wednesday’s final word, he gave an outstanding answer about compassion not being about the government “giving away free stuff”).
Perry came across as a candidate who is focused on jobs, jobs, jobs, and who wants to speak in big-picture terms rather than the more technocratic details of Romney, Cain (of the 9/9/9 plan) or even Huntsman. Thus, Perry doesn’t want to talk about tweaking Social Security here and there; he wants to label it a Ponzi scheme. And, despite the protests of Romney on Wednesday, and of Karl Rove earlier this week, I think Perry is smart to talk in these terms as Social Security relates to younger Americans — the majority of whom agree with Perry that the system won’t survive until their retirement — while pledging not to change the deal for Americans already in retirement or approaching it. If older Americans believe him, younger Americans won’t penalize him for saying what they believe to be true.
Then again, it might just be that Perry, as the newcomer, isn’t ready to commit to any details. That’s what I mean about being unsure of how to think about him just yet. I think it’s possible that a big-picture candidate — with a track record as governor that says the details will be taken care of — can be successful in the primary and against Barack Obama. But it remains to be seen if that’s really what Perry is.
As I said at the outset, the match-up between Romney and Perry is compelling enough to have some staying power — and to force all the other candidates into the shade. With five four more debates scheduled before Thanksgiving [NB: The original link is broken so I've replaced it, albeit with one that only shows four more debates in that time frame], we’ll get a good idea of whether Romney can keep his critiques of Perry fresh and effective, and whether Perry not only holds up but keeps up his early momentum.
(Note: Because of the timeliness of the debate, my Thursday print column will be published online a few hours later than usual, around noon today.)
– By Kyle Wingfield