Republican Presidential Candidates Debate: Rick Perry Falls Short

The Texan couldn’t live up to the hype at the GOP debate—and his Social Security stance could sink him.

Robyn Beck / Getty Images

Gov. Rick Perry showed up to the MSNBC/POLITICO debate on Wednesday night wearing his “Mitt kickers” as expected, but Mitt Romney was hitting back. The two sparred over job creation and, most notably, Social Security.

Romney held his place in the top tier with a polished performance, while Perry didn’t live up to the hype. His answers were marked by a very Palin-esque wandering that left the viewer puzzled, as when he claimed that Texas has so many uninsured people because of the federal government. Huh?

More important, Perry decided to double down on his earlier claim that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme,” something that likely won’t go over with the older voters who dominate party primaries and general elections. Romney engaged him on the issue, insisting, “our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security.” That’s the understatement of the year. The Romney camp pounced on the misstep with a press release blasting: “PERRY DOES NOT BELIEVE SOCIAL SECURITY SHOULD EXIST.”

One suspects there will be a little cleanup on that Social Security answer from the Perry camp along the lines of a promise that all the people who receive benefits now have nothing to worry about. If he doesn’t provide some sort of reassurance, he’s likely toast.

In every other way, Perry staked out the correct positions for a GOP primary: skepticism about climate-change science, enthusiastic use of the death penalty, and strong border protection.

Romney is without a doubt the more appealing general-election candidate, and his answers were calibrated toward those voters, not the Republican base. When asked if he was a member of the Tea Party, he offered a nuanced answer, saying he’s not a “card-carrying member,” but there is no card, and if they are for smaller government, then he’s for that. It was far from the bear hug Tea Partier Perry was offering up to Republican primary voters, which may work well for him in the short term but prove fatal in a general election. His inability to finesse the Social Security question or appreciate how dangerous his position is should give savvy Republican voters pause about whether he can go the distance.

It’s definitely a two-person race—Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann seemed to fade into the background Wednesday night—leaving the field to two polar-opposite candidates. Mitt Romney is surely hoping that slow and steady wins the race.