Even though he stood before an audience most likely to support him, Rick Perry’s weaknesses were exposed at Monday night’s CNN/Tea Party Express debate.
For nearly the entire session, Perry was attacked by his opponents on all manner of topics ranging from immigration, to the controversial HPV vaccine he briefly mandated in Texas to the so-called Texas Miracle to, of course, Social Security.
How did Perry do? Though he eventually found the answers to the questions being thrown at him, viewers were faced with the unlikely image of a tea party crowd literally booing Perry (during the conversation about letting immigrants go to college at in-state rates) and Perry on the run during the talk about HPV. Polls show he’s still very clearly the frontrunner, but we saw tonight that he’s not immortal.
The night opened with the highly anticipated fight between Mitt Romney and Perry on Social Security. After suffering five days of criticism from Romney that his Ponzi Scheme rhetoric went too far and scared the elderly, Perry dialed it back quite a bit, reassuring seniors that their benefits will not be touched under a Perry administration.
“The people who are on social security today need to understand something,” Perry said. “Slam-dunk guaranteed, that program is going to be there in place for those people.”
Romney wasn’t going to let that slide, and attacked Perry for calling Social Security a Ponzi Scheme and calling for the program’s eventual elimination in favor of a state-run program. (For his part, Romney has said he’d have no problem eliminating some of Social Security’s guarantees in favor of voluntary private accounts.)
“The question is, do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program as you did six months ago when your book came out and returned to the states?” Romney asked Perry. That led to this long exchange:
On jobs, the number one issue in the minds of the electorate according to polling, the Romney and Perry sparred again. Romney dismissed Perry’s job creation record as simply the result of baked in advantages in Texas such as no income tax, a Republican-led state government and “oil in the ground.”
“If you’re dealt four aces, that doesn’t make you a great poker player,” Romney said.
Perry shot back: “I was going to say you were doing pretty good until you got to talking poker,” he said.
Ron Paul joined in with Romney, claiming Perry — Paul’s governor down in Texas — has raised his state taxes and eluding to the thousands in new government jobs that fueled the Texas job boom of the recent past.
It was one of many occasions where Perry found himself at the center of a circular firing squad manned by his fellow candidates on stage. Bachmann, who’s staff had promised would go on the attack in the debate, led the charge against the HPV vaccine, accusing Perry of “a violation of a liberty” when he mandated using the drug.
Perry was briefly caught on the run, having to apologize again for something that is not at all popular among tea partiers or conservative Republicans.
He was faced with the same conundrum during a discussion of Texas’ Dream Act-style law, which allows children of illegal immigrants to attend state schools with in-state tuition. Perry defended the law, and once again advocated for its principles. That led to a series of boos from the tea party crowd.
The crowd itself also produced what may be the most memorable moment of the debate. Moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul if he thought the uninsured should be allowed to die instead of receiving state care. Before Paul could answer, several in the crowd yelled out, “yes!,” reminding everyone in the viewing audience how far to the right the candidates on stage will have to lean to grab the Republican nomination they all want so badly.
Watch TPM’s 100 seconds of highlights below: