Front-runner Rick Perry plays the 'piñata' at GOP presidential debate

In his first presidential debate since entering the GOP field, Texas Gov. Rick Perry took most of the barbs from his fellow candidates on issues ranging from Social Security to jobs.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (l.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry answer a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Reagan Library Wednesday, Wednesday, in Simi Valley, Calif.

Those looking for presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Perry to spar tonight got their wish early on in the Republican debate Wednesday night.

The two men lashed out at each other’s records on job creation and set the tone for an evening that was largely focused on the two front-runners and their differences.

Mr. Romney defended his record as the former Massachusetts governor, as Texas Governor Perry touted his own achievements.

Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” Perry told Romney, who instantly snapped back: “George Bush and his predecessors created jobs at a faster rate than you did.”

And that was just the first 10 minutes.

It was Perry’s first debate since entering the race in August – and quickly taking the lead in the polls – and, as expected, he was the main focus of the evening, both from the moderators and his fellow debaters.

“I kind of feel like the piñata here at the party,” he quipped at one point.

Most notably, he continued to defend his statement that Social Security is a “Ponzi scheme,” despite the bashing that the comment has taken in recent days from fellow Republicans.

“You cannot keep the status quo in place and call it anything other than a Ponzi scheme,” he reiterated, drawing immediate criticism from several other GOP candidates, clearly looking to mark differences.

“Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security, but who’s committed to saving Social Security,” countered Romney, taking issue with Perry’s statement that “by any measure Social Security is a failure.”

Jockeying behind the front-runners

Romney wasn’t the only Republican taking shots at Perry.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said that, “I hate to rain on the parade of the Lone Star governor, but as governor of Utah we were the No. 1 job creator during my years of service.” And while he refused to name names on who his chief strategist was referring to when he criticized some in the GOP as a “bunch of cranks,” he took direct issue with Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, among others, by going after those who doubt climate change.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Rick Santorum, and Ms. Bachmann, meanwhile, all piled on Perry's executive order requiring young girls in Texas to get vaccinated for HPV, a sexually transmitted virus. They touted the importance of parental rights.

That was one area, in fact, where Romney came to Perry’s defense, saying that “I think his heart was in the right place.”

Newt Gingrich also tried to take a moral high ground by refusing to engage at times.

In an early line of questioning, where moderator John Harris of Politico tried to get candidates to jump on Romney for his health-care plan in Massachusetts, former House Speaker Gingrich sharply rebuked Mr. Harris.

“You’d like to puff this up into some giant thing,” Gingrich told Harris. “I for one am going to repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect President Obama.… Every person up here understands ObamaCare is a disaster.”

If Perry was the main focus of the debate, Bachmann seemed strangely absent. Many were watching her to see how she handled her first debate with Perry as a candidate – given that he has siphoned off many of her supporters – but she participated relatively little and often refused to spar with other candidates, reserving most of her criticism for President Obama.

The other candidates sometimes seemed to be jockeying for position behind the front-runners, with Mr. Huntsman working to portray himself as moderate alternative to right-wing candidates like Perry, and Mr. Paul setting himself up as the outlier on any issue involving federal regulation.

Reagan's shadow

And for much of the debate there also seemed to be a ninth Republican up on stage.

Perhaps it was inevitable in a debate held in the Reagan Presidential Library, but the former president was omnipresent.

Huntsman invoked a flight he took with Reagan to China early on the debate, and the candidates competed for who could take on his mantle.

Perry brought up the issue of Paul’s letter to Reagan in 1987 that said he’d quit the party over Reagan’s stances. (Paul replied that “I support the message of Ronald Reagan,… but the consequences were not all that great,” citing the huge deficits of the 1980s.)

Bachmann responded to a question about all the candidates agreeing that they would not accept a debt deal that included $10 in spending cuts for every $1 of tax increases by saying, “There’s someone else who would join us in that agreement, and that would be Ronald Reagan.”

Gingrich invoked Reagan in defending his immigration platform – which differed notably from most of his opponents in his willingness to talk about a path to citizenship for some of the 11 million immigrants currently here illegally.

And Mr. Santorum used Reagan’s commitment to “America being a force for good around the world” to counter Bachmann’s statement that it was wrong to go into Libya. “This is a very important issue for our party: Are we going to stand in the Reagan tradition, or are we going to with the isolationist view that some in this party are advocating?” he asked.

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