Feature

Rivals challenge front-runner Rick Perry

Candidates vying for the Republican nomination sparred with Rick Perry at a CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Florida.

What happened
The Republican presidential field turned its fire on the front-runner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, this week, ripping his record on Social Security, immigration, and a mandatory vaccine program for teen girls. At a CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Florida, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney—running second to Perry in the polls—challenged Perry to explain his description of Social Security as a “failure” and a “Ponzi scheme.” Republicans, said Romney, could not afford to nominate a candidate who wants to end the program. In an attempt to soften previous comments, Perry assured seniors that if he were elected president, the entitlement program would be “slam-dunk guaranteed” to remain in place, but that it required wholesale reform to survive. The two candidates also battled over jobs. Romney said his years as a corporate executive gave him superior knowledge of the private sector, while Perry said the pro-business policies he’s instituted in Texas would help the U.S. economy “take off like a rocket ship.”

Several candidates questioned Perry’s conservative credentials. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum blasted Perry for allowing the children of illegal immigrants to pay lower, in-state tuition to attend Texas state colleges. Immigrants deserved the right to become “contributing members of our society,” said Perry, to boos from the debate’s conservative audience. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann assailed an executive order Perry signed in 2007 mandating that preteen girls receive a vaccine to prevent HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cancer. He admitted that was a “mistake,’’ but Bachmann accused Perry of trying to force “a government injection” on “innocent little 12-year-old girls.”

What the editorials said
We do need a serious conversation about Social Security, said The Wall Street Journal, but so far, we haven’t heard one from either Perry or Romney. Perry’s “hot rhetoric” is more likely to alarm seniors than to persuade them the program needs fixing, while Romney is using Democratic-style scare tactics. The truth is, Social Security is a kind of Ponzi scheme, but “unlike a Ponzi scheme, Social Security can be reformed.” The candidates need to explain how.

We deserve more clarity on immigration too, said The Washington Post. The candidates have so far been vague and evasive on the issue, focusing on their “secure the border” mantra when, in fact, illegal crossings are at their lowest level in 40 years. The real issue is the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already here. Perry showed real guts, though, in defending in-state tuition for immigrants’ children, said The Sacramento Bee. Braving the boos of the Tea Party will impress the “moderate independents” likely to decide the 2012 election.

What the columnists said
The feud over Social Security helps only one candidate, said Ed Kilgore in The New Republic, and that’s Barack Obama. While Romney and Perry wrangle over “whether to demolish or merely slash” Social Security, the president can present the 2012 election as a “choice between two very different visions of American government”—rather than a referendum on his handling of the economy.

Even if Social Security doesn’t hurt Perry, said Steve Kornacki in Salon.com, the HPV-vaccine controversy might. The vaccine is an issue that “matters deeply to religious conservatives,” who believe it promotes sexual promiscuity. If Bachmann, who is Perry’s main competition for the Christian Right’s vote, can use the issue to win the caucuses in evangelical Iowa, it could do “serious damage to Perry’s candidacy.”

All in all, it was a good week for Mitt Romney, said Beth Reinhard and Alex Roarty in TheAtlantic.com. Establishment Republicans are sweating over the “swaggering, cowboy-boot-wearing” conservatism Perry has now displayed in two debates. All Romney has to do is play the “cool corporate executive,” let secondary candidates chew away at Perry’s support on the Right, and wait for the party to turn to him. But in 1980, the GOP establishment had similar doubts about another very conservative candidate, said Gerald F. Seib in The Wall Street Journal. Like Perry, this candidate got “conservative juices flowing,” had no love for Washington, and was attacked for “questioning the wisdom” of Social Security. His name? Ronald Reagan.

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