Political debates rarely live up to their name, much less their hype. It is especially difficult to have any sort of debate when the stage is crowded with multiple candidates, each trying to get in a memorable sound bite or talking point.
But the Republican candidates almost had a debate Wednesday night, as most of them shrank into the background and the two leading contenders, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, squared off. Rick Perry was surprisingly good in his first debate and, even more surprising, he seemed to make Mitt Romney better.
The entire Republican race to date has been an audition to see who would emerge as the second semi-finalist alongside Mitt Romney. Although Michele Bachmann had a brief try-out in that role following her strong finish in the Iowa straw poll, no one really thought she had the staying power to end up there. But Rick Perry, whose appeal appears to be broad and strong, seems likely from day one to make it to the final round with Romney.
As a front-runner in his first debate, it was clear Perry would be a target of the moderators and the other candidates, and he seemed ready for it. The key is that he kept his composure and his smile, shrugged off multiple attacks, and held his ground. He responded to the gang attack with humor, noting he was the “piñata,” and quickly got into a jab and punch with Romney over who had created more jobs as governor. He stood by his rhetoric that Social Security was a “ponzi scheme”—questionable on the substance, but strong on style—and gave as well as he took.
Romney, finally facing a formidable opponent, really seemed to rise to the occasion. Rather than steer the middle of the road with bland responses as he has done most of the year, Romney attacked Perry’s record as governor and was spirited in the defense of his own. You don’t understand Massachusetts, he said. We don’t have oil wells and no state income tax. And he was a gentleman when Perry acknowledged he might have handled a matter better with the Texas legislature, noting that we had all made mistakes, had done things we might do differently.
This is rapidly becoming a two-man race, and a potentially interesting one at that. Romney has the experience of running before and a huge head start in fundraising. His strength—the economy—matches what voters say is their biggest concern. I have a friend who says Romney’s best campaign speech would simply mention jobs and his ability to understand and create them about every third sentence. But his conservative credentials are subject to attack and somehow he seems to impress voters as running for chief operating officer more than president.
Perry is the candidate with, as they say these days, strong positives but also strong negatives. In a political party with so many different kinds of conservatives (social, fiscal, constitutional, religious), Perry seems to be conservative across the board. And though it will be attacked, still his record in Texas speaks well to the big issue of the day: the economy. His problem—which was not helped in this debate—is he doesn’t yet seem to get the difference between running for office in Texas and nationally. His rhetoric and ideas (social security as a ponzi scheme, should Texas secede from the Union, a governor leading a huge Christian prayer rally) often fit Texas more than they do the greater diversity of the country. He clearly needs some help outgrowing his parochialism, without seeming to be reinventing himself or flip-flopping (as Romney is often accused of doing).
So, they’re off, these two interesting, contrasting candidates, Perry and Romney. Soon enough, the other candidates will fall to the wayside, and we may end up with a compelling two-man race to the Republican nomination next summer.
(photo credit: PB-PSBear)