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Scot Lehigh

Heart vs. head

In first big battle for the GOP’s soul, Rick Perry comes out strong

Mitt Romney, left, and Rick Perry disagreed on Social Security during Wednesday’s debate. Mitt Romney, left, and Rick Perry disagreed on Social Security during Wednesday’s debate. (Reuters)
By Scot Lehigh
September 9, 2011

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SAY THIS about Rick Perry: The tough-talking Texan sticks to his guns.

Indeed, in his first foray on the national debating stage on Wednesday, Perry renewed his criticism of Social Security, insisted again that climate change isn’t settled science, and offered a no-qualms defense of the death penalty.

A cool hand throughout, the new Republican presidential frontrunner also showed that he’s ready to mix it up, comparing Mitt Romney’s jobs record slightingly to that of Mike Dukakis and aiming sharp don’t-mess-with-this-Texan elbows at both rival Ron Paul and consultant-cum-critic Karl Rove.

Romney’s camp has been hoping that, with the media spotlight now on Perry and his record, the Texas governor will come to seem less palatable to Republicans, letting Romney reemerge as the better, more presidential choice. Perhaps. And yet, given the conservative electorate that Perry is appealing to, the suspicion here is that his no-rhetorical-retreat debate performance will actually strengthen his hand as the GOP contest moves into its fall phase.

The night’s best drama came over Social Security, after Perry reiterated his assertion that the public pension program is both a Ponzi scheme and a “monstrous lie’’ to younger workers.

In a debate highlight, Romney then warned that the GOP shouldn’t nominate someone who wants “to abolish Social Security,’’ but rather someone committed to saving the program. He’s certainly right that stark electoral danger looms down that road. Yet the fact remains that Perry is saying something that conservative true believers want to hear.

As for Romney, he walked a fine line, trying to nudge Perry further into the quicksand of controversy without getting himself on the wrong side of conservatives in the process. But other than Social Security, the biggest contrasts he drew with Perry were based on experience and accomplishments rather than issues. That left viewers without a particularly distinctive ideological impression of the former frontrunner.

The Perry-Romney clash dominated the evening, but former Utah governor Jon Huntsman also turned in a strong performance. Largely a bystander in the last GOP debate, Huntsman chastised Romney for his new get-tough-with-China stand, while asserting that under him, Utah’s economy had outperformed both Texas and Massachusetts. Huntsman also triangulated effectively on health care, contrasting his no-mandate Utah approach as an alternative to both RomneyCare in Massachusetts and Texas’ nation-leading percentage of uninsured citizens.

When offered the kind of confront-your-opponent opportunity Tim Pawlenty famously funked in the New Hampshire encounter in June, Huntsman handled it well. Asked whom he was speaking of when he warned that the Republican Party couldn’t be anti-science, he singled out comments Perry has made about climate change and evolution. He didn’t mention Perry by name - but there was no doubt who he was talking about. Whether there’s room in this field for the more moderate Huntsman remains to be seen. Still, he has reason to be pleased with his performance.

If recent polls have shown just how much Perry has taken Michele Bachmann’s support, this debate demonstrated how thoroughly he has stolen her thunder. Despite her (vastly overplayed) Ames Straw Poll win, she was never plausible as a potential presidential nominee. The meter is now officially running on her 15 minutes of relevance.

It was a particularly bad night for Ron Paul. When he went after Perry for a letter he had written praising Hillary Clinton’s health care efforts, Perry delivered a sharp rejoinder. “Speaking of letters, I was more interested in the one you wrote [in 1987] to Ronald Reagan and said I’m going to quit the party because of the things you believe in,’’ he said.

That left a flustered Paul splitting hairs, noting that he had supported Reagan’s “great message,’’ but not the actual fiscal results - huge deficits - of his policies. Even more curious was Paul’s later warning that a border fence meant to keep illegal immigrants out of the country might instead be used to keep Americans in.

This is a debate that should frame the Republican race going forward as a contest between the GOP’s heart and its head, between those who want a damn-the-torpedoes conservative stalwart like Perry and those who think a conservative-leaning pragmatist like Romney - or even a moderate like Huntsman - is the wiser general election choice.

That will be the dynamic as the Republican candidates enter a fall season of debates. Wednesday night’s lively viewing is just a preview of the battle to come.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.