Michael Tomasky: GOP Debate Gives Us a Race Between Perry and Romney

From here, the GOP primary will be between a man who's trying to act like a radical but isn't—and the real deal.

The most meaningful moment of the night came when Rick Perry and Mitt Romney squared off over Social Security. This will almost certainly be a Romney-Perry race, a fact that tonight generally demonstrated. And the race between those two will be between a Republican who’s trying to act like a radical but isn’t quite, and one who is the real deal. In reusing the phrases “Ponzi scheme” (which means he believes Social Security is illegal, right? Mr. Ponzi went to jail) and “monstrous lie,” Perry showed his stripes—and after all, backing down wouldn’t be very Texas. Romney’s willingness to say that Social Security has actually been good for millions of people was one of the first times I’ve ever heard the guy say something in front of an audience that ran the risk of displeasing it (and his avowal that he’s not a Tea Partier was the second).

So it looks to be a pretty straight-up Romney-Perry race. What will be interesting to watch is how the party establishment handles this matchup. You’d think from the way the media have framed it that the establishment will be totally behind Romney. I’m not so sure. A lot of the party’s establishment these days is in Texas. The gravity has moved toward Perry, but it makes sense for Romney to try to offer a contrast rather than a pale imitation.