Immigration, Social Security and health care were the most contentious issues in Thursday's spirited debate among the field of Republican presidential candidates vying for their party's nomination. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney put on another polished performance while Texas Governor Rick Perry seemed at times to struggle. Nonetheless, no candidate delivered a knock out punch.
All of the candidates criticized President Barack Obama's handling of the U.S. economy. Governor Perry began the debate by once again referring to the relatively strong Texas economy and jobs creation as the reasons he should be elected president, "If it'll work in the state of Texas, it'll work in Washington, D.C." Former Governor Romney again pointed to his private sector experience and his economic plan as the reasons he should be in the White House. But, late in the debate, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson had the night's best line, "My next door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this president."
Governors Perry and Romney, the two frontrunners according to polls, went after each other on Social Security. In his recently released book Governor Perry denounced Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" and suggested that some of the responsibility should be turned back to the states. When asked about Governor Romney's attacks on his stand Perry seemed to be on the defensive, "It's not the first time that Mitt has been wrong on some issues before...we never said that we were going to move this back to the states." He continued, "We ought to have as one of the options the state employees and the state retirees, they being able to go off of the current system, on to one that the states would operate themselves."
Governor Romney seized the opening, "Well, it's different than what the governor put in his book...There's a Rick Perry out there that is saying -- and almost to quote, it says that the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business, that it's unconstitutional." Governor Perry quickly responded by switching subjects to the former governor's universal health care plan for Massachusetts. The Texas governor said, "(In your book) you said it was exactly what the American people needed, to have that Romneycare given to them as you had in Massachusetts." Governor Romney denied he ever wrote that.
Immigration was a hotly debated subject and it found Governor Perry having to defend his policies. The Texas "Dream Act" allows children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuitions for college. Governor Romney criticized the Texas governor's position, "We have to turn off the magnet of extraordinary government benefits like a $100,000 tax credit -- or, excuse me, discount for going to the University of Texas. That shouldn't be allowed. It makes no sense at all." And former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum attacked Governor Perry's overall immigration policy, "I think he's very weak on this issue of American sovereignty and protecting our borders and not being a magnet for illegal immigration."
Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, who had a stronger debate performance this time around, went after Governor Perry for his executive order in 2007 mandating that all 12 year-old Texas girls receive the HPV vaccine against cervical cancer. "Governor Perry made a decision where he gave parental rights to a big drug company," she charged, "That big drug company gave him campaign contributions and hired his former chief of staff to lobby him to benefit the big drug company." The governor said he was lobbied by a 31 year-old woman with cervical cancer and concluded, "I erred on the side of life and I will always err on the side of life as a governor as the president of the United States."
Governor Perry stumbled through his only real attempt to go on the offensive against Governor Romney, who he accused of being a flip-flopper on key issues. "I think Americans just don't know sometimes which Mitt Romney they're dealing with. Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment?" Then the governor seemed to lose himself, "Was it -- was before he was before the social programs, from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against Roe v. Wade? He was for Race to the Top, he's for Obamacare, and now he's against it. I mean, we'll wait until tomorrow and --and-- and see which Mitt Romney we're really talking to tonight."
It is unlikely that Thursday's debate in Orlando, Florida, will dramatically change the polls. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who had seen a bump up in a recent New Hampshire poll, may have actually hurt himself a bit with his awkward answer to who he might pick among the debaters to be his vice presidential running mate. His answer was businessman Herman Cain because he was also wearing a yellow tie at the debate.
In the weeks ahead, Governor Perry will have to do a better job of explaining his positions on Social Security and immigration or they may ultimately drag him down. Yet, what the governor lacks as a debater he makes up for in charisma and charm. On the other hand, while former Governor Romney is a strong debater with a solid business background, he is haunted by Romneycare and his history of changing positions on core Republican issues. A lack of enthusiasm may make it easier for President Obama to be reelected, provided he makes progress on reducing unemployment and improving the economy before election day 2012.
So, even though it is clearly a two-man race for the Republican nomination, many Republicans still haven't decided who to support. In other words, neither candidate is yet shovel-ready.