Published September 23, 2011
Frontrunner Rick Perry, the most popular target for attack aside from President Obama, probably woke up with some bruises Friday morning after fending off pointed jabs from his Republican presidential primary competitors the night before.
The fireworks at Thursday night's debate hosted by Fox News, Google and the Republican Party of Florida didn't appear to change the dynamics of the race, as many familiar themes returned for a repeat venting.
But Mitt Romney gave his all to try to take down his top rival in the race, and much of the night was consumed with the blow-by-blow between the former Massachusetts governor and Perry, the Texas governor.
Among the pointed go-rounds between Perry and Romney was over their written vs. spoken word on Social Security and health care. The two sparred so much that fellow candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, wondered if they would bludgeon each other before the race ends.
Questioned on whether Perry thinks Social Security should be run by the states, Romney suggested that the Texas governor had flipped from his prior view.
"There's a Rick Perry out there that is saying -- and almost to quote, it says that the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business, that it's unconstitutional. Unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states. So you better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that," Romney quipped.
But Perry said Americans who are in the government's retirement program or close to joining it have nothing to worry about, because it won't be dismantled.
"Now, it's not the first time that Mitt has been wrong on some issues before," Perry said.
The other seven challengers who participated in the debate were looking to gain ground on the leading pair. They were Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, businessman Herman Cain, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.
Johnson delivered what was perhaps the best-received line of the night when he attacked President Obama's record on creating "shovel-ready" jobs.
"My next-door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration," he said to large laughter.
The debate enabled the viewing public to weigh in with votes on questions they wanted asked. More than 18,000 questions and 100,000 votes were submitted via text and videos to the YouTube.com/FoxNews website.
Fox News' Bret Baier moderated, joined by Fox News anchors Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace as panelists.
During the debate, Perry was attacked by Romney and Santorum for allowing certain illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates in Texas.
Romney calculated that the discount added up to $22,000 a year and nearly $100,000 over four years.
"If you are a United States citizen from any one of the other 49 states, you have to pay $100,000 or more," he said. "That doesn't make sense to me. That kind of magnet draws people into this country to get that education, to get the $100,000 break."
Perry defended his immigration record, saying that he has more experience than any other candidate on border security and that he supported Arizona's strict immigration law that was mostly struck down by a federal court.
"But if you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought here by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," he said. "We need to be educating these children, because they will become a drag on our society."
But Santorum wasn't satisfied with that answer.
"Why are we subsidizing? Not that they can't go," he said. "They just have to borrow money, find other sources to be able to go. Why should they be given preferential treatment as an illegal in this country?" he said to cheers.
Santorum also slammed Perry for not backing a border fence and for saying in a 2001 speech that he supported binational health insurance between Mexico and Texas.
"I mean, I don't think even Barack Obama would be for binational health insurance," he said to laughs. "So I think he's very weak on this issue of American sovereignty and protecting our borders and not being a magnet for illegal immigration."
Perry asked Santorum if he had ever been to the border with Mexico.
"I'm surprised if you had," Perry said as Santorum replied "yes."
"But you weren't paying attention, because the idea that you are going to build a wall, a fence for 1,200 mile and then go 800 miles more to Tijuana does not make sense," he said. "You put the boots on the ground. We know how to make it work."
Bachmann also continued her recent attacks on Perry for his mandate in Texas that girls receive a vaccine for a common sexually transmitted disease linked to cervical cancer. She again suggested he acted to benefit a drug company who had given him campaign contributions.
Perry responded that he, indeed, had been "lobbied" on the issue -- not by a drug company but by a woman with cervical cancer.
"The fact is, I erred on the side of life and I will always err on the side of life as a governor as the president of the United States," he said.
On several issues, the candidates were all in alignment. Each who was asked -- and Paul did not get to respond during the segment -- criticized the president's policy on Israel. All who responded also agreed that the Education Department is no longer needed.
"If you care about your children, you'll get the federal government out of the business of educating our kids," Paul said. "There are other things that the federal government can do, and that is give tax credits for the people who will opt out. We ought to have a right to opt out of the public system if you want."
Some of the candidates also scored on positions that were not broadly discussed. Santorum said that he would return to "don't ask, don't tell" because there's no place for sexual experimentation in the military.
Gingrich added that he would reform the system for unemployment benefits.
"I believe it is fundamentally wrong to give people money for 99 weeks for doing nothing. That's why we had welfare reform," Gingrich said, referring to his own role as House speaker in the 1990s.
"If you don't have a job and you need help, then in order for us to give you the help, you should sign up for a business-led training program so that that 99 weeks becomes an investment in human capital, giving us the best-trained workforce in the world so you can get a job."
The Republican presidential candidates will make their case to conservative voters in Florida on Friday, attending a CPAC event for activists to press them on issues that will likely echo questions from their debate of a night before.
The all-day event includes a straw vote of the nine candidates who appeared at the debate.