Rick Perry Has Legs

Texas Governor Rick Perry proved he has electoral legs in last night’s GOP presidential debate. Ever since he entered the race last month, and jumped to a double-digit lead, the big question was how he would perform in a major television debate. Would he demonstrate substantive knowledge and would he present himself in a way that would appeal to voters?

Standing on the Reagan Library stage, Perry demonstrated knowledge of leading issues, a sense of humor, and an ability to draw a contrast with opponents. He drew laughs debating former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on their respective state job creation records when he pointed out that “Michael Dukakis created jobs three times as fast as you did.”

Perry was on weaker grounds when he took a potshot at Romney’s Massachusetts health care legislation including an individual mandate. He said it was a “great example of what won’t work.” But when pressed by co-moderator Brian Williams of NBC News why Massachusetts rated first on health insurance coverage while Texas was dead last, Perry ducked the question and said he wants the federal government to get out of people’s health care business. He weakly explained there were many uninsured people in Texas because “the federal government doesn’t give us flexibility.” He expressed his support for block granting Medicaid and said his wife was a nurse. He said Texas could deliver “more health care to more people” if the federal government ended its “string’s attached” approach to health care.

Perry’s critical comments on Social Security in his book Fed Up formed the basis of several questions from co-moderator John Harris of Politico. Perry responded by saying it was important to stay focused on how to change the program today. He noted that older people don’t have to worry about anything changing with Social Security. But with younger people, he said that it is a “Ponzi scheme” and that it is wrong to tell kids that “you are paying into a program that will be there for you.” He concluded by noting that “it is a monstrous lie to our kids.” When reminded that Republican Karl Rove criticized Perry’s comments on Social Security, Perry complained that Rove “has been over the top for many years.”

Romney jumped into the conversation by noting that candidates shouldn’t say that to seniors. America must “save, not abolish Social Security.” As president, Romney said “I will keep the program and make it financially secure” and noted that it was working for millions of Americans.

On the question of immigration reform and the need to secure borders, Perry said we need boots on the ground from the federal government. He said when President Barack Obama claimed the border was secure that he either had bad intelligence-gathering or was an “abject liar.” Romney drew a contrast by saying we need a fence, need federal agents, can’t talk about amnesty, and should deny in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.

There were tantalizing questions that were left unresolved. Ron Paul accused Perry of having written a letter as Secretary of Agriculture in Texas “supporting Hillarycare.” Perry replied that he wanted to make sure agricultural workers were taken care of when he wrote that letter and complained that Paul had written a letter in the 1980s to President Ronald Reagan threatening to leave the Republican party due to growing deficits.

Governor Perry clearly understands how to resonate with conservative voters. What the debate didn’t answer was whether he can broaden that appeal to centrist and independent voters in a general election.