This was a very successful debate debut for Rick Perry. It confirms his position as the leader of the field. As of now, this race is a Perry-Romney duel, but Perry’s the one to beat. Romney and Perry were well matched tonight, but Perry’s appeal to the base means he’s got a leg up over Romney just by fighting to a draw, which he did at least, if not better.
Perry’s biggest problem is the Fed Up! controversy. How did he handle it? He rightly framed his historical treatment of Social Security in Fed Up! as a reflection on the past — not the same as his policy answers for the present. But Perry didn’t back off of his “monstrous lie” and “Ponzi scheme” remarks, and that just might win him the nomination. Will it kill him in the general? I’m not so sure. Are there risks? Of course. But Perry’s onto something when he says that Americans know our entitlements are in trouble. Increasingly, they do. And the public awareness of this problem is growing week by week.
Running a presidential campaign — at least in part — as an educational effort on entitlement reform may not be the safest way to go, but that’s what all the folks who wanted Paul Ryan in the race have been asking for, isn’t it? And remember, Bush ran on Social Security reform in 2004 and won. Yes, he failed to pass it, but it wasn’t prohibitive during the election, and the public is far more ready to hear the truth about the entitlement crisis now than it was eight years ago.
The Fed Up! controversy is being transformed into the Perry-on-entitlement-in-debates-and-on-the-stump controversy, and that’s a winnable proposition.
There are no guarantees here, of course, which is one reason it’s nice to have a continuing Romney-Perry duel. This next month or so of debates is going to help both Romney and Perry with their greatest weaknesses. Romney is going to get a second look from conservatives, which he deserves. Romneycare is a problem that will never entirely fade. Yet it increasingly it looks as though it won’t be prohibitive, should Perry falter. Meanwhile, Perry is going to have a chance to get his message through to the public on the entitlement crisis, and it just might work.
The jobs issue has still got to be up front, but tonight’s debate shows how that’s possible, even as the entitlement issue gets some attention. All in all, a successful debate for all the candidates, and for the party. The field is maturing, and Obama is vulnerable.