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The Policy Racket

Mitt Romney, Rick Perry take center stage at GOP debate

GOP debate

Jae C. Hong / AP

Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry answer a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Reagan Library Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, in Simi Valley, Calif.

Let the two-way race begin.

Polls in Nevada and across the country have been showing for weeks that the race for the Republican presidential nomination comes down to two candidates: Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.

At Wednesday night’s debate at the Ronald Reagan Library in California, the front runners laid into each other on the key election issues of Social Security, health care and jobs. Romney and Perry dominated the conversation, attempting to draw distinctions between their positions.

On jobs.

“If I’d spent my whole life in government, I wouldn’t be running for president right now,” Romney said, in a dig at Perry, the Texas governor.

Countering, Perry said that while Romney, a businessman and former Massachusetts governor, “had a good private-sector record, his public sector record did not match that.”

On health care.

“I understand health care pretty darn well, having been through what I went through as a governor,” Romney said, referencing his experience pushing a health care bill through in Massachusetts, where nearly all residents have coverage. “What President Obama put in place, it’s not going to work; it’s massively expensive.”

Massachusetts leads the country in access to health insurance. Texas, where 25 percent of people go without health insurance, is dead last.

But Perry said, “I’ll tell you what people in the state of Texas don’t want, they don’t want a health care plan like governor Romney put place.”

And, most sharply, on Social Security.

“It is a monstrous lie. It is a Ponzi scheme,” Perry said, labeling Social Security as the ultimate in fraudulent rackets. “Maybe it’s time to have provocative language in this country,” he said, when challenged.

Romney scolded him. “You can’t say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security and those who have lived on it,” Romney said. “Under no circumstances would I ever say it is a failure. It is working for millions of Americans and I’ll keep it working.”

That we’ve come to the point where two front runners are taking off the gloves is bound to help Obama’s re-election efforts, but it complicates his messaging in the next few critical days on jobs.

Romney came out with an economic restructuring plan yesterday; Obama unveils his jobs prescription before a joint session of Congress tomorrow. But as the Republican position diversifies between candidates, it will get harder for Obama draw a distinction between the Republican position and his own.

“The nominating contests will play themselves out, and there’s not much that the president or the campaign can do but watch that happen,” former White House press secretary and Obama adviser Robert Gibbs said before the debate. “What you see the Republicans outline are the very same ideas that, quite frankly, originated to get us into the mess that we’re in now.”

Romney and Perry took center stage at the debate right off the bat. They dominated the first several minutes with a polite dialogue that quickly turned into the best sparring of the night on jobs.

“We created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he did in four years in Massachusetts,” Perry said of Romney.

“Wait a second. States are different,” Romney retorted. “Texas has zero income tax. Texas has a lot of oil and gas in the ground...But governor Perry wouldn’t say he created those things...That would be like Al Gore saying he created the Internet.”

Perry countered, saying, “Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” referencing the former Democratic governor of Massachusetts who made an unsuccessful run for president in 1988.

Romney didn’t let it go. “As a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs faster than you did,” Romney said to some vigorous head shaking by Perry.

Candidate Jon Huntsman, who’s at the back of the pack, would eventually weigh in to remind the field that when it comes to job creation, Utah was No. 1 under his leadership.

Oh, yes, there were other candidates in the room.

Michele Bachmann, who won a straw poll in Iowa and emerged as an early favorite of conservatives, seemed to assert her relevance at first. But after several worn answers on “Obamacare,” the MSNBC and POLITICO moderators seemed to forget about her, along with the rest of the audience.

That might not make that much of a difference to Nevada, which Bachmann hasn’t yet factored into her early state strategy.

It wasn’t such a great night for Ron Paul, either.

Paul was weaker than in past debates, sticking stubbornly to his libertarian, Constitution-only philosophy when moderator Brian Williams pushed him to allow the federal government some non-enumerated powers, like regulating food safety or operating air traffic control towers.

Paul wouldn’t budge, taking his thematic point about the markets being the best regulator to an academic limit.

The other back-of-the-pack candidates had their moments, too, but they didn’t do much to promote themselves on the big issues.

Herman Cain’s repeated advocacy of a “9-9-9” tax scheme started to ring like a pizza chain sales pitch when his staff began soliciting $9.99 donations via Twitter during the debate.

Newt Gingrich, as in the last debate, used much of his time to criticize the moderators for asking the wrong kinds of questions.

Rick Santorum questioned the conservatism of the front runners — Romney for authoring a health care bill and Perry for mandating human papilloma vaccinations, which, Santorum said, in the ultimate insult, sounds like something Obama would do.

It was a low moment for Perry, who had to that point been the one slinging slights Texas style.

Yet when Perry’s answer of, “I hate cancer...I will always err on the side of saving lives,” wasn’t enough to deflect the mounting criticism, it was Romney who came to his defense.

“We’ve each taken a mulligan or two,” Romney said, silently referencing how the others, including Perry, had jumped on him for authoring Massachusetts’ health care bill. “I think his heart was in the right place.”

The gesture seemed to be appreciated for the moment it lasted. But this is a race for the presidential nomination. Now back into the ring.

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