Nine Republican presidential candidates squared off in Orlando, Florida Thursday night. Once again, the back-and-forth between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney stole the show.
The two frontrunners went after each other numerous times during the two-hour debate; Romney and Perry took turns accusing the other of flip-flopping or being too moderate on key issues.
On Social Security, Perry assured viewers that he would not transition administration of the program to the states. Romney pounced on that statement, accusing Perry of flip-flopping on Social Security — a program Romney called a “job for the federal government.”
Perry, in turn, accused Romney of changing his position on education, and supporting President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program. Romney fired back, “Nice try.”
Perry also took a jab at Romney on health care, pointing out that the former governor re-wrote a section of his book on Massachusetts’ health care overhaul.
At one point, Perry said that Americans “don’t know which Mitt Romney they’re dealing with … We’ll wait until tomorrow to see which Mitt Romney we’re talking to tonight.”
A significant portion of the debate focused on immigration, reflecting an emerging theme in the GOP race. Romney, along with the other candidates, zeroed in on Perry’s perceived weakness on the issue.
Romney attacked Perry for supporting in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants in Texas, calling it a magnet “that draw illegals into the states.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann also attacked the Perry on immigration. Both advocated for the construction of a fence along the border, something Perry considers impractical.
Erick Fehrnstrom, Romney’s top surrogate, doubled down on the Perry-bashing after the debate, comparing him to President Obama.
“Neither one has the skills to lead on the economy … Over the last three years we’ve learned what it’s like to have a president who has absolutely no private sector experience,” said Fehrnstrom. “Rick Perry’s experience is not in the private economy. For the past 26 years, he’s been in government. That’s different from Mitt Romney.”
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman asserted himself during the debate’s foreign policy discussion. At one point, he interrupted the line of questioning to target Santorum’s statements on Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This country has given its all,” said Huntsman, who recently served as Ambassador to China. “At the end of the day, only Pakistan cans save Pakistan. Only Afghanistan can save Afghanistan … And only America can save America.”
After the debate, Huntsman commented on the Romney-Perry back and forth, telling TheDC the “drama” is “to the detriment of the viewers because they want real solutions, real ideas.”
“The back and forth between who said what in books, that’s nonsense,” said Huntsman. “It’s wasted time. The amount of effort we spend on words out of books, trying to spin it one way or the other, is time taken away from the American people who want answers.”
Another highlight of the debate was a discussion on the Department of Education. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson advocated for abolishing the agency. All other candidates called for significant reforms.
Johnson earned uproarious applause at the end of the debate when he pronounced, “My neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this administration.”
The crucial post-debate question, however, was whether anything had changed.
A source from a competing campaign told TheDC, “Rick Perry stumbled through lines, was completely unprepared and totally fell apart.”
Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, however, concluded that “Johnson had the line of the night, [but] Perry is the favorite.”
“Perry is a guy who is speaking form experience and heart,” Florida media consultant Rick Wilson told TheDC. “Mitt Romney is speaking from intense preparation.”
“We’re going to see something very different in the coming weeks,” he added.