Eight Republican candidates stood on stage during Wednesday's presidential debate, but it was really the Rick Perry show.
The tough-talking Texas governor introduced himself to the nation as pugnacious, proud, funny, genuine and disciplined. But he stumbled, too, tripped up by some of his own words as well as the barbs of his opponents and the moderators.
"I kind of feel like the piñata here at the party," Perry said at one point in the thick of the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library.
Perry can expect more whacks.
Until now, he has lived in a Zen-like political world: rocketing to frontrunner campaign status by not campaigning. Now he has been drafted. Campaign season has unofficially begun with the end of Labor Day. And the public is tuning in.
As Perry did Wednesday, he'll now have to explain and explain again why he called Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" and said its future solvency was a "monstrous lie." He'll have to explain again why so many Texans are uninsured and work at low-wage jobs. And he'll have to explain again why he signed an executive order that virtually required girls to get vaccinated for human papillomavirus.
Mitt Romney and his campaign will make sure he's asked about it all. The former Massachusetts governor is running in second place, eclipsed only recently by Perry. And his team wants Perry to explain away because, as they say in politics: when you're explaining, you're losing.
Judging by Romney's performance last night — cool, steady, earnest, knowledgeable — Perry won't be a clear front-runner for long. Though Wednesday was the Rick Perry Show, Romney was the debate's star.
The other candidates looked more like stage props, foils or members of a Greek chorus. They looked like also-rans, and they were treated as such by the poll-mindful moderators. Not everyone deserved equal time, though third-place Ron Paul was iced out far longer than last-place Jon Huntsman.
All the candidates agreed more than they disagreed and said that President Obama has mismanaged the moribund economy and must go.
Perry started out strong. Asked why more Texans are working at low-wage jobs when compared to any other state, Perry rope-a-doped by touting the job-creation figures in his decade as governor.
"What Americans are looking for is someone who can get this country working again," Perry said. "We created 1 million job in the state of Texas at the same time America lost 2 ½ million."
Soon Perry laid into Romney, who also was on the defensive for fashioning a health-insurance mandate that Presient Barack Obama expanded nationwide as part of his health-care overhaul.
"We created more jobs in the last 3 months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts," Perry said before unfavorably comparing Romney to one of his Democratic predecessors. "Michael
Dukakis created jobs 3 times faster than you did."
The Reagan Library crowd laughed.
"As a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, governor," Romney shot back.
The crowd roared.
Perry basically asked for it. He wasn't really goaded into going after Romney, and usually a front-runner doesn't attack the number-two guy preemptively. Perry didn't seem to let a slight go unchallenged — even when it came to Rep. Paul, who swiped at Perry for writing a letter that seemed to support Hillary Clinton's health care overhaul when her husband was president.
Perry explained he was agriculture commissioner at the time and wanted to make sure the concerns of farmers were taken into account.
He said he opposed the initiative. Then he struck back.
"Speaking of letters, I was more interested in the one you wrote to Ronald Reagan back and said, 'I'm going to quit the party for the things that you believe in,' " Perry said.
Paul explained he backed Reagan ever since 1976, and that his letter criticized Reagan for not being Republican enough.
"In the 1980s, we spent too much, we taxed too much. We built up our deficits and it was a bad scene," Paul said.
After about 45 minutes of debate, Perry met his toughest opponent: Rick Perry, the author of the 2010 book Fed Up. Moderator John F. Harris of POLITICO asked Perry to explain what he meant by saying Social Security was wrong right from the beginning.
Perry said it was a "nice intellectual conversation" to talk history, but the candidates need to talk about changing the program for future generations, not those at or near retirement.
"It is a monstrous lie, it is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids who are 25 or 30 years old today" that Social Security will exist in its current form when they retire, Perry said.
Harris pressed him, noting the criticisms of former Vice President
Dick Cheney and Bush advisor Karl Rove, who called the comments politically "toxic."
"You know, Karl has been over the top for a long time in some of his remarks. And you know, I'm not responsible for Karl anymore," he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Then it got worse for Perry.
Paul reiterated his criticisms that Perry used his executive power to require a vaccine to stop the spread of HPV. "Forcing 12-year-old girls to take an inoculation to prevent a sexually transmitted disease — this is not good medicine," Paul said.
Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, fellow religious conservatives of Perry, piled on. That's when Perry said he felt like a "piñata" and explained parents could opt-out of the requirement. Unmentioned: a former Perry aide worked as a lobbyist for Merck, which stood to benefit from the executive order.
Perry said he was just trying to fight cancer and save lives. Then it was Romney's turn. And he played the part of the gracious colleague who noted Perry admitted he would have done it differently.
"We've each taken a mulligan or two.. I think his heart was in the right place," Romney said. "We have some differences between us. But we all agree this president's got to go. This president's a nice guy.
But he doesn't have a clue how to get this country working again."
"It was Romney's best moment," said Justin Sayfie, a Republican lawyer, lobbyist and founder of the SayfieReview political blog in
Florida. "Rick Perry was on defense quite a bit both by the moderators and other Republicans. And it's always better to be on offense than on defense,"
Perry drew applause at the end of the debate when the subject turned to the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, whom some suspect was innocent. The case was a Perry trump card in his 2010 Republican race against opponent Kay Bailey Hutchison, whose campaign was shocked when a man in one of their focus groups approvingly said of Perry "It takes balls to kill an innocent man."
When NBC's Brian Williams started to ask Perry about the 234 executions on his watch, the crowd applauded and whistled. Williams continued: "Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that anyone of those might have been innocent?"
"No sir," Perry said. "I've never struggled with that at all."
But Wednesday's debate in the spotlight? That was a struggle at times. And it'll get tougher.