Romney, Perry Dominate GOP Presidential Debate

Even though there were nine contenders, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry were the highlights of much of Thursday night's GOP presidential debate in Orlando, Fla. The two leading candidates had a chance to attack each others positions on social security, health care and immigration.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. The two leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination had another chance last night to attack each other's positions on Social Security, healthcare and immigration, among other things. Mitt Romney served as governor of Massachusetts. Rick Perry, of course, is currently governor of Texas. And the experience of governing means that both men made decisions that strayed from the conservatism of this moment and invite criticism now, including criticism from each other. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: Mitt Romney has been trying to stop Rick Perry's surge to the top of the Republican field largely by hammering at past Perry statements on Social Security, Romney accusing the Texas governor on wanting to abolish the federal program and move it back to the states. Last night Perry said that wasn't true.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

RICK PERRY: For those people that are approaching Social Security, they don't have anything in the world to worry about. We have made a solemn oath to the people of this country that that Social Security program in place today will be there for them. Now, it's not the first time that Mitt's been wrong on some issues before.

LIASSON: But Romney didn't want to let Perry to move away from statements he'd made in his book "Fed Up."

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: There's a Rick Perry out there that's saying that, almost to quote, it says that - that the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business, that it's unconstitutional - unconstitutional - and it should be returned to the states. So you better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that.

LIASSON: Last night, Romney attacked Perry for being inconsistent, not as he had in the previous debates for having views about Social Security that would make him unelectable. That may be because many Republicans agree with Perry. A new Quinnipiac Poll in Florida showed 52 percent of Republicans agree that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, and 60 percent said Perry wanted to fix the program; only 14 percent thought he wanted to abolish it.

It took Herman Cain to point out that neither Romney nor Perry has laid out a plan to reform the Social Security system.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

HERMAN CAIN: I don't think we're doing a service to the American people to keep bantering about what you call it and what you don't call it. The solution is: fix it.

LIASSON: Perry has said he felt like a pinata in the last two debates and last night he came prepared to fight back.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

PERRY: There's one person on this stage that is for Obama's Race to the Top, and that is Governor Romney. He said so just this last week, and I think that is an important difference between the rest of the people on this stage and one person that wants to run for the presidency. Being in favor of the Obama Race to the Top, that is not conservative.

LIASSON: Romney's credentials as a conservative have long been in question with Republicans, but last night he got a chance to attack Perry from the right, on immigration, and Perry's policy of letting illegal aliens in Texas get in-state college tuition.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROMNEY: You know how much that is? It's $22,000 a year. Four years of college, you're almost $100,000 discount, if you're an illegal alien, to go to University Texas. If you're a United States citizen from any one of the other 49 states, you have to pay $100,000 more. That doesn't make sense to me.

LIASSON: This is a very unpopular position among Republican primary voters, but Perry didn't back off.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

PERRY: If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there, by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart. This was a state issue, Texans voted on it, and I still support it greatly.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Senator Santorum?

LIASSON: Under attack from the other candidates and under scrutiny from the media, Perry's early skyrocket has leveled off, so he was under some pressure last night to reinforce doubts Republicans have about Romney. But when he laid out his indictments, he seemed to have a hard time getting through it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

PERRY: I think Americans just don't know sometimes which Mitt Romney they're dealing with. Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of, against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it ? was before ? he was before these social programs, from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe vs. Wade before he was against verse(ph) - Roe vs. Wade?

LIASSON: On Saturday in Orlando, there will be a straw poll held by the Republican Party of Florida. Perry is heavily favored to win, Romney isn't participating. But both he and Perry and the rest of the Republican field will meet again to debate in New Hampshire next month. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Orlando.

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