Rick Perry's Top Five Texas Debate Moments

The Memorable Moments

The new Republican frontrunner, Gov. Rick Perry, will take part in his first Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night. In advance of his debut, we took a look back at the previous debate performances of the longest-serving governor in Texas history.

Perry has been an elected official since 1985, and these debate performances — which date back to his days as agricultural commissioner in 1998 — demonstrate his proven ability to avoid gaffes or other notable moments that would cost him votes. Sometimes that meant avoiding the debate stage altogether. Other times it meant letting other members of a crowded field do the talking — a strategy that could come in handy this week.

  • October 2010: The Non-Debate Debate Moment

    The Texas Tribune/YouTube

    OPPONENT: Bill White, Democrat (But there was no general election debate)QUOTABLE: "I'm just going to tell you, from my own personal life. Abstinence works."

    After vanquishing fellow Republican US Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the primary, Gov. Rick Perry used a political move to avoid debating his general election opponent, former Houston Mayor Bill White, a Democrat. Perry's team said the governor wouldn't debate unless White released his tax returns from before the time he was an elected official. White refused to allow Perry to set conditions on a debate, leading to a standoff in which neither side blinked: Perry and White never met face-to-face.

    But both candidates did agree to sit down with The Texas Tribune's Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith for back-to-back hourlong interviews. Near the end of his hour, Smith asked a question submitted from the audience about why Perry continued to support state tax dollars going to abstinence-only education even in the face of evidence that it wasn't working. Perry's response? "I'm, I'm just going to tell you, from my own personal life. Abstinence works."

  • January 2010: The TARP Taunting Moment

    KERA-TV/YouTube

    OPPONENTS: Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina, Republicans QUOTABLE: "We thought you all were smart enough to understand what we were talking about."

    In a primary race cast as a battle for the soul of the Republican party, the conservative Perry faced a challenge from a more moderate GOP titan, longtime U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Tea party favorite Debra Medina, who had respectable poll numbers, was also included in the debate. This first of two debate meetups was notable for Medina's strong performance, but also for Perry and Hutchison's sniping. Verbal attacks flew when discussing the 2008 vote for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which critics call a Wall Street bailout.

    Perry said Hutchison told Texans she wouldn't vote for the measure but then did. Hutchison said she voted for the measure because she was asked to by then-President George W. Bush, and said the bill was changed to limit how much was spent.

    Hutchison then called Perry "disingenuous" because he had written a letter urging congressional action, but became a critic after it was passed: "You were for it before you were against it."

    Perry said he thought Hutchison and Republicans in Congress would be "smart enough" to understand that the intent of his letter was to get Congress to cut spending to stimulate the economy.

  • October 2006: The Uneasy Closing Moment

    BELO Corp/C-SPAN /YouTube

    OPPONENTS: Chris Bell, Democrat; Kinky Friedman, Independent; Carol Keeton Strayhorn, IndependentQUOTABLE: "You have a clear choice in this campaign... whether you want to have a vigilant security of our border, or the benign 'gollect' of Congressman Chris Bell..."

    In the lone debate of a bizarre four-person race for Texas governor, so many candidates split the hour that the incumbent governor only had to ride out the clock without making any major mistakes.

    Democrat Chris Bell, who lacked money and resources throughout the race, capitalized on the TV time to seem gubernatorial and engaging. The independent candidates faltered. Perry succeeded in making it out, gaffe-free, despite a "lightning round" that called on him to estimate the average electricity bill in the governor's mansion.

    The governor's only moment of unease came during his prepared closing statement, in which he lost his place and fumbled sentences, like this one: "You have a clear choice in this campaign... whether you want to have a vigilant security of our border, or the benign 'gollect' of Congressman Chris Bell and his former colleagues in Washington, D.C." (Yes, he said "gollect," apparently meaning neglect.)

  • October 2002: The Prosecutorial Moment

    BELO Corp./KERA-TV/YouTube

    OPPONENT: Tony Sanchez, DemocratQUOTABLE: "There is drug money that came into your bank, in cash, in suitcases."

    In a big money contest — Perry's first general election campaign for governor — he faced off against billionaire businessman Tony Sanchez, who self-financed his run. Millions of dollars were spent slamming each other, and in the campaign's final days, the attacks got intensely negative. The bitterness showed during the series of three televised general election debates.

    Perry's line of attack centered on drug money that allegedly passed through the Sanchez-controlled Tesoro Savings & Loan in Laredo in the early 1980s. Nobody at the institution was ever charged with wrongdoing, but it didn't stop Perry from accusing the Democrat of aiding drug lords. "Mr. Sanchez, you shouldn't feel good. You shouldn't feel good when the federal authorities tell you that there is drug money that came into your bank, in cash, in suitcases. And then you sent the money to Panama, at the request of those drug dealers," Perry said. The Laredo businessman called the charge "an absolute, utter lie."

  • September 1998: The Populist Moment

    More than a decade before they ran against each other for lieutenant governor, Perry and John Sharp served in the Texas House together. This photo shows them on the  floor in May 1987.OPPONENT: John Sharp, Democrat QUOTABLE: "I'm the only candidate in this race whose kids go to public school." i i

    More than a decade before they ran against each other for lieutenant governor, Perry and John Sharp served in the Texas House together. This photo shows them on the floor in May 1987.OPPONENT: John Sharp, Democrat QUOTABLE: "I'm the only candidate in this race whose kids go to public school." Texas State Library and Archives Commission hide caption

    itoggle caption Texas State Library and Archives Commission
    More than a decade before they ran against each other for lieutenant governor, Perry and John Sharp served in the Texas House together. This photo shows them on the  floor in May 1987.OPPONENT: John Sharp, Democrat QUOTABLE: "I'm the only candidate in this race whose kids go to public school."

    More than a decade before they ran against each other for lieutenant governor, Perry and John Sharp served in the Texas House together. This photo shows them on the floor in May 1987.OPPONENT: John Sharp, Democrat QUOTABLE: "I'm the only candidate in this race whose kids go to public school."

    Texas State Library and Archives Commission

    Then-Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry and Democrat John Sharp were former college roommates running neck-and-neck for lieutenant governor, a post that many consider the state's most powerful. The office was being vacated by Democrat Bob Bullock, who decided not to seek re-election. Despite seven joint appearances, they only shared one televised debate. When debate questions concerned loyalty to then-Governor George W. Bush, Perry called Bush his "philosophical soul mate." But the notable sparring came over school vouchers, which was a fairly new idea on the political landscape.

    The Dallas Morning News wrote-up the exchange this way:

    "I can't understand why we would be afraid of something like this," Mr. Perry said, adding that he backs only a limited voucher program for students in low-performing schools.

    "You are sentencing these children to a life of failure and mediocrity. If a pilot program is what we need to do to help them, then I will stand up and say let's try it."

    He also reminded the audience that his children are in public schools and Mr. Sharp's have been in private schools.

    "I think my kids should be off limits," an irritated Mr. Sharp shot back.

Elise Hu is the digital editor and coordinator of NPR's StateImpact network, which focuses on public policy reporting in the states. She's covered Texas politics since 2003, most recently at the Texas Tribune.

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