Perry, Romney Capture Spotlight At GOP Debate

Eight Republican presidential candidates gathered Wednesday night at the Reagan Presidential Library in California for a debate. It was the debate debut for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He's overtaken former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in national polls.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

Just a few months ago, many Republicans seemed to assume that their candidate for president would be a long shot in 2012.

GREENE: But now President Obama is looking more vulnerable, so Republican candidates attended a debate last night, knowing that one of them could have a real chance to win.

INSKEEP: First, of course, they battle each other. Former front-runner Mitt Romney faced with the current front-runner, Rick Perry.

NPR's Ina Jaffe watched the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California.

INA JAFFE: Rick Perry has debated just four times in his three runs for Texas governor. But he's earned a reputation for never backing down. He lived up to that last night, right from the start. Moderator Brian Williams of NBC said that while Perry touts his state's success in creating jobs, there are some less flattering statistics.

Mr. BRIAN WILLIAMS (Moderator): Texas ranks last among those who have completed high school. There are only eight other states with more living in poverty, no other state has more working at or below the minimum wage.

JAFFE: But Perry was having none of it.

Governor RICK PERRY (Republican, Texas): I'm proud of what we've done in the State of Texas. And for the White House or anyone else to be criticizing creation of jobs, now, in America, I think is a little bit hypocritical.

JAFFE: Yes, Texas is a great state, said former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. It has low taxes and oil and gas deposits that have contributed to job growth.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Republican, Former Governor, Massachusetts): But Governor Perry doesn't believe that he created those things. If he tried to say that, why, it'll be like Al Gore saying he created the Internet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROMNEY: Look, the reality is...

JAFFE: The reality is that Rick Perry didn't like his image as a jobs creator questioned by the former Massachusetts governor.

Gov. PERRY: Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROMNEY: Well, as a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Gov. PERRY: That's not correct.

Mr. ROMNEY: Yeah, it is correct.

JAFFE: Perry and Romney battled again on Social Security. Perry has called it a crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal. Seniors shouldn't worry about it now, he said, but Republican candidates should talk about transitioning to something more sustainable.

Gov. PERRY: It is a monstrous lie. It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today: You're paying into a program that's going to be there. Anybody thats for the status quo with Social Security today, is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids. And it's not right.

JAFFE: Romney said that any Republican presidential nominee must be committed to saving Social Security and that it was wrong for Perry to call it a failure.

Mr. ROMNEY: You can't say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security and those we who have lived on it. And under no circumstances would I say, by any measure, it's a failure. It is working for millions of Americans and I'll keep it working for millions of Americans, and we got to do that as a party.

JAFFE: After a while, Perry said he felt like the pinata at the party. He did seem to be wearing down late in the debate, when he tried to explain his skepticism about human activity as a cause of global warming.

Gov. PERRY: Just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here's the fact - Galileo got out-voted for a spell. But the fact is to put America's economic future in jeopardy, asking us to cut back in areas that would have monstrous economic impact on this country, is not good economics. And I will suggest to you, is not necessarily good science.

JAFFE: If Perry felt like the party's pinata most of the other candidates probably felt like the wallflowers. While Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman all got their chances, none managed to influence the dynamics of the race, says Jason Johnson, political science professor at Hiram College in Ohio.

Professor JASON JOHNSON (Political Science, Hiram College): But everyone benefits for this small reason...

JAFFE: That reason being Rick Perry's position on that third rail topic of Social Security...

Prof. JOHNSON: ...has given every campaign hope that; maybe, maybe there's going to be a chink in the armor.

JAFFE: The other candidates will have plenty of opportunities to try to turn that into a gaping hole. There are two more debates scheduled for this month and around half a dozen others before the Iowa caucuses this winter.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Simi Valley, California.

INSKEEP: And our reporters fact-check some of the candidates' statements on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED later today.

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