GOP presidential debate: Who won the wrangle in Orlando?

The critics were brutal about Rick Perry's performance. But voters react to the images that candidates project in a presidential debate over time, as snippets are worked into news reports and political ads.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry laughs while answering a question during a debate Thursday, in Orlando, Fla.

There was another GOP presidential debate Thursday night – this one a freewheeling event in Orlando, Fla., sponsored by Fox News and Google. In previous such confabs, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has shown polish produced by running for president over a period of years, while Texas Gov. Rick Perry has had some rookie-candidate stumbles. So what happened this time? Who won and who lost?

In one way, that last question is unanswerable, at least for weeks to come. Voters react to the images that candidates project in debates over time, as snippets are worked into news reports and political ads. Those judgments don’t always match with the pundit pronouncements in the immediate aftermath.

That said, we’re drawing some preliminary conclusions from the full event of Thursday night.

First, Mr. Romney is going to confront Governor Perry with the latter’s words about Social Security until the cows come home while the fat lady sings about who the new GOP nominee is. Right off, Romney went after Perry for appearing to indicate that the big retirement program should be dismantled and turned over to the states.

“Can you explain specifically how 50 separate Social Security systems are supposed to work?” Romney asked Perry.

Perry parried by saying he’d never said what Romney said he’d said, then questioned whether Romney had changed positions on health care between editions of a Romney-written book.

Second, if debates picked the nominee, Perry would lose. He has yet to handle the Social Security issue well. In his recent book “Fed Up!,” he does call Social Security unconstitutional, and it sure looks like he’s changed his tune on that, while he claims he hasn’t. That’s the disconnect Romney is exploiting.

Perry also indicated it would be heartless to deny illegal immigrants who are working and paying taxes in Texas the benefits of in-state college tuition – a response that drew boos from the conservative crowd. He made a bad joke about combining Newt Gingrich with Herman Cain in some sort of Frankenstein experiment. And he talked about how he was opposed to George W. Bush’s push for Medicaid Part B. That would have been fine, except that he seemed to be referring to Medicare Part D, Mr. Bush’s initiative to provide prescription-drug coverage for seniors.

The critics were brutal.

“Rick Perry was a train wreck,” wrote editor Erick Erickson on his conservative RedState blog.

“The more Perry debates, the worse he gets,” wrote political analyst John Dickerson in Slate.

“Texas toast? Perry worries GOP” was the headline on a Politico debate story.

Third, it appears that some of the other candidates may be positioning themselves as possible vice-presidential picks. Mr. Gingrich, we’re looking at you here in particular. Gingrich, former speaker of the House, refused to criticize the others in the field, focused his ire on President Obama, gave crisp platform-ready answers, and in general seemed like a good match for someone who has more campaign cash and voter support.

Mr. Cain, whose answers were well received by the audience, said he’d pick Gingrich as VP, for one. Perry indicated he would “mate” Gingrich with Cain for his VP, which caused Romney to cringe and say, “There are a couple of images I’m going to have a hard time getting out of my mind.”

As for the rest of the field, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said she had not claimed the inoculation against the HPV virus can cause mental retardation. Her problem will be that there is ample video of her appearing to say just that as she criticizes Perry’s attempt in Texas to order that vaccination for teenage girls.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul did not back away from his statement in a previous debate that a fence along the southern US border might at some point be used to keep Americans in – though he did link it to currency smuggling as opposed to a reverse immigrant flow.

“In tough economic times, money and people want to leave the country. That’s unfortunate,” he said.

And the award for the best line of the night, preplanned version, might go to former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who was appearing in his first debate and had zingers he’d probably been storing up for weeks. (Organizers excluded him from previous debates because of his low poll numbers.)

“My next-door neighbor’s two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration,” Mr. Johnson said.

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