Republican presidential debate: Who won?

The general consensus among pundits is that Mitt Romney did well, while Rick Perry might have a problem with his insistence that Social Security is a 'Ponzi scheme.'

Jae C. Hong/AP
Republican presidential candidates stand at the podium to answer questions during a debate at the Reagan Library Wednesday in Simi Valley, Calif.

Republican presidential hopefuls had a lively debate last night at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney went at each other like heavyweights.

Ex-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman provided a sort of Greek chorus, providing occasional comment on the foibles of human nature and the GOP race.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas played the purist, explaining once again why he’s against federal regulation of pretty much everything.

Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, ex-Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania were also there, and had their moments, but seemed less central to the action, given that organizers NBC and Politico placed them on the wings of the crowd.

We’ll get right to the important horse race question: Who won?

Well, everyone had their moments, and often with stuff like this it isn’t apparent until weeks later what is resonating in voter minds. But the early read is that Mr. Romney did well for himself. Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post said Romney started slowly, but by the end was sounding “reasonable, and, dare we say it, presidential.” Erick Erickson at the conservative blog, RedState, said Romney made no major mistakes and was “the strongest of anybody on stage”.

Romney planted some obviously planned zingers on Governor Perry, such as the fact that job growth in Texas was greater when George W. Bush was governor than it has been under Perry. But as Mr. Erickson, pointed out, Romney has been running for president since 2007 – he ought to be good at debates by now.

What about Perry? At the beginning he sounded strong, sidestepping questions as to the quality of Texas jobs and the low percentage of Texas residents with health care to emphasize the state’s strong job growth and overall economic health.

But he got tangled in an exchange on Social Security that could haunt him if he becomes the nominee. Romney defended the idea of the program, while Perry called it a “monstrous lie” in regards to its promises to younger participants, and repeated his insistence that it is a “Ponzi scheme.”

Think those clips will show up in attack ads? We do. Perry seems to be wagering that there is a groundswell of voter dissatisfaction with Social Security that’s heretofore been untapped. Or he just is focusing on appealing to the GOP primary electorate first. Or something.

Erickson said Perry “stumbled several times.” Liberals were gleeful – Jed Lewison on Daily Kos said the Social Security exchange is a “core difference” between Romney and Perry and will be the only thing about this debate that’s remembered.

Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Beast was harsher, calling Perry “an extreme, inarticulate, incurious W clone.”

As to the other highlights, Congresswoman Bachmann seemed to orbit about the Romney versus Perry exchange, without joining in. She did point out that as a legislator she was well aware that Obama’s health care reforms could not be repealed with a simple executive order, as Romney and Perry implied.

As for Congressman Paul, he had a postal problem – the Perry camp has been circulating a letter he wrote in 1987 in which he criticized the Reagan administration and resigned from the GOP. Paul pointed out the inconvenient truth that under Reagan, government spending and tax revenue continued to rise.

“The [Reagan] message was great, but the consequence – we have to be honest with ourselves – it was not all that great: huge deficits during the 1980s,” said Paul.

Then, during a discussion on whether the US should continue to fence off its southern border, Paul said that he did not believe that a barbed wire fence with machine guns is what America is all about.

Plus, he hinted that the fence could be turned around and used to control the US population.

“Every time you think of a fence keeping all those bad people out, think about those fences maybe being used against us, keeping us in,” he said.

The best line? We’ll give that to Mr. Huntsman. Asked whether he would join the rest of the candidates in taking a pledge to not raise taxes, he sidestepped.

“I’d love to get everybody to sign a pledge to take no pledges,” he said.

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