Romney Tops Perry in Third Debate Showdown

Romney Tops Perry in Third Debate Showdown

ORLANDO -- Rick Perry is not a good debater.

That does not mean he can’t win the Republican presidential nomination, but it’s sure not helping him

Mitt Romney, by contrast, is an adequate debater, and is only getting better.

Romney and Perry have now clashed three times in debates. Perry won the first on style and energy and Romney won the second meeting on points by allowing his fellow candidates to tear down the Texas governor. But Romney won the third meeting by his own effort.

Primary debates are auditions for general election debates. The most important question on the stage last night was the one never put into words: Which of these candidates would do best toe-to-toe with Barack Obama?

The answer, narrowly speaking, at the FOX News/Google/Florida GOP debate was probably Newt Gingrich, though Herman Cain ran a very close second. The thousands of Republican activists in the Orange County Convention Center would have likely been very pleased at the idea of happy warrior Cain or puckish policy wonk Gingrich getting an hour to spar with Obama.

But the way a candidate wins a general election debate is by looking and sounding plausibly presidential to undecided independents. On that front, Romney was the clear winner.

Romney had less help in attacking frontrunner Perry than in the previous two outings, except for Sen. Rick Santorum, who has been relentless on the Texas governor and pulled his punches on Romney throughout the debate process. Santorum also clashed with Romney’s New Hampshire rival Jon Huntsman.

But Romney adopted a new tone with Perry. He was a little bemused and a little dismissive with the Texan, dropping deadpan lines like “nice try” and “I’m not sure exactly what he’s saying” when Perry swung at him.

Here, Romney has to walk a fine line because if he comes off as too cocky, he will remind Republicans about their longstanding misgivings about the moderate Mormon. But Romney’s underlying message – Get out of my way so I can get on to the big show – was effective.

He blasted Obama over and over again. When FOX News colleague Megyn Kelly asked Romney if he agreed with Bachmann, Gingrich and Perry that Obama was a socialist, Romney found a way to avoid embracing the label but still pummeled the president for being a European-style social Democrat. The gist: He is, but you can’t make me say it.

While Perry was whacking at Romney, Romney was mostly brushing off the blows and turning his focus to Obama. When the next round of debates starts later this fall, Perry would do well to remember that while Republicans are looking for an anti-Romney, what they really want is an anti-Obama.

Perry had a reasonable outing on policy points. He continued to mop up the Social Security issue by talking about possible plans for reform. Romney will find in time that attacking Perry over Social Security is past the point of diminishing returns.

The Texas governor dealt well with his other problem area in the GOP primary electorate, immigration, by talking tough and tender. He cast his stance on a border fence as almost a tactical military decision – that troops and predator drones are what’s needed to keep out illegal immigrants and drug violence rather than a fence. He cast his law allowing in-state tuition for illegal immigrants who came to Texas as children as an act of compassion, saying that those who would oppose it don’t “have a heart.”

Perry’s best answer on policy of the night came when FOX News colleague Bret Baier tested Perry on foreign policy, asking Perry about how he would answer a “3 a.m. call” about Pakistan’s nukes, Perry showed some chops, flashing knowledge about the Haqqani Network and Indian diplomacy.

One of the toughest areas for the GOP nominee in 2012 will be confronting Obama, who has embraced the idea of a war presidency, on international affairs. Americans may dislike Obama’s foreign policy, but neither Romney nor Perry has much standing on the subject compared to the guy who says “killed Usama bin Laden” almost as much as “pass this bill.”

But when Perry went on the attack with Romney, he tripped on his lines and drew unflattering comparisons with the verbal dystrophy of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Perry has been turning in strong performances on the campaign trail – his TV appearances and speeches, particularly his heavily biographical remarks on faith at Liberty University and on poverty and opportunity in Greene County, Iowa – have been high quality. But his debate performances are going the other direction, and unfortunately for him, he’s faltering at exactly the moment Romney found a new gear on the debate stage.

The next contest between the two is financial as Perry and Romney wrap up their quarterly fundraising drive in one week. Perry can help convince some skeptics that he has what it takes to beat Obama if he rains down dollars on Romney, but his uneven performance in Orlando will put even more emphasis on that quarterly number.