GOP debate: Rick Perry vs. Mitt Romney, plus Gary Johnson and some dogs
If you believe pollster Frank Luntz's focus group in the post-game analysis on Fox News, Mitt Romney did himself a lot of good in Thursday's two-hour Fox News/Google GOP Debate, held in Orlando, Fla.
Nine candidates faced questions from FNC anchors Bret Baier, Chris Wallace and Megyn Kelly, and from citizens via YouTube and text messages: Gary Johnson, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman Jr.
Baier mentioned Google had provided Fox News with a new "boop" sound to indicate a candidate had run over time, since the former bell raised the ire of dog owners (and apparently the volume of their pets' barking).
Speaking of dogs, former New Mexico Gov. Johnson, who hasn't been in a debate since the first one in May, got in the line of the evening, quipping, "My next-door neighbors' two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration."
It got a lot of laughs even though some people swear they've heard Rush Limbaugh tell the same yarn.
Not to be outdone in the canine arena, Georgia-born businessman Cain criticized....
Nobody offered new programs, except for Johnson. He came out for submitting a balanced budget for 2013 and vetoing bills where expenditures exceed revenues. To those who might doubt him, he said, "I think I've vetoed more bills than all the other governors combined."
He also wants the "fair tax," or a national consumption tax, in place of the income tax.
And, if anyone doesn't know by now that Bachmann raised five biological children and 23 foster children -- and will repeal Obamacare -- he or she may need to seek treatment for short-term memory loss.
Again, Perry and Romney were put next to each other, where they sparred over passages in their respective books regarding Perry's views on Social Security and Romney's Massachusetts healthcare plan. And over which face each is putting forward to the public and the relative merits of private-sector experience over long-term government service.
But Perry did appear to slightly rile the Sunshine State crowd when he said to Gov. Rick Scott -- who was in the audience -- that Texas was beating Florida in the competition to attract jobs, saying, "We plan to keep it that way, Rick." That got some boos.
Bachmann again criticized Perry over his executive order to mandate (with a parental opt-out) that 11- and 12-year-old girls receive the Gardasil vaccine to prevent HPV, which causes cervical cancer, citing parental rights and Perry's ties to drug-maker Merck.
Perry countered by saying he'd been lobbied, but it was by a 31-year-old woman dying of cervical cancer. In talking to Fox News' Sean Hannity afterward, Bachmann correctly asserted Perry had not met Heather Burcham until months after his ultimately overturned order.
Perry also came under attack for his unwillingness to endorse a border fence with Mexico and his agreement with virtually all Texas legislators to allow significant in-state college-tuition discounts to children of illegal immigrants.
Both Romney and Santorum hammered Perry on the tuition discounts. Romney enumerated the amount of the discount -- a hefty $22,000 per year. Santorum emphasized the question was not about the children getting an education, but being subsidized with taxpayer dollars and receiving preferential treatment over legal U.S. residents from outside of Texas.
Frequently on the defensive during the evening, Perry had no new arguments to support his stand on either issue, but he did challenge Santorum on whether he had ever been to the Mexican border. The former Pennsylvania senator said he had.
Wallace asked Paul about his comment in the last debate that a border fence would keep Americans in, asking if he "knew a lot of Americans who want to take their money and flee the United States of America?"
Paul said companies had already sent their dollars overseas, and then went on about the destruction of currency, national I.D. cards and no "free eduction, no free subsidies, no citizenship, no birthright citizenship" for illegal immigrants.
We're still not sure what any of that has to do with a fence on the border with Mexico keeping Americans inside their country, when they could still drive to Canada, get on a plane to Paris or sail to St. Croix. But it got Paul through the answer.
On foreign policy, Romney and Perry wanted to stand with India, Cain wanted to stand with Israel (OK, they all wanted that), and Johnson had no issue with charter air flights to Cuba.
Bachmann then stepped in to point out the State Department still lists the Caribbean island nation as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Asked about sending troops if there's another crisis in Iraq, Santorum was in no mood to cut and run from Iraq or Afghanistan, which he said distinguishes him from Paul, Huntsman and Perry.
Baier tried to move on to social issues with Kelly, but Huntsman wanted to respond, closing with, "People are ready to bring our troops home,"
Santorum rolled over the top of Kelly again to say, "Just because our economy is sick, does not mean our country is sick, doesn't mean our values are sick. We're going to stand up for those values."
Huntsman continued with his argument about not trying to save other countries, which caused Kelly to dock him one social-issues question.
Santorum also got a hot-button question from a gay Army man in Iraq. In response, he stated that "sexual activity has no place in the military," and that he objected to using the military for social experimentation. He would also reinstate the recently rescinded "don't ask, don't tell" policy, he said, without penalizing those who'd come out under Obama's policy.
Wallace mentioned Cain was a survivor of stage-four colon and liver cancer, eliciting cheers and applause from both the audience and the candidates. Cain then recounted the speed and methods of his treatment and asserted that, if Obamacare had been in force then, bureaucratic delays would have cost him his life.
Perry and Romney then had another go at each other over healthcare issues, each accusing the other of retreating from positions in their respective books, with each denying that was the case.
Romney answered Perry's attacks with "Nice try" a couple of times, and in regards to backing off of his book's claims, Perry said, "Not an inch, sir."
Nothing good is going on when men call each other "sir" during a disagreement.
Despite his smiles and elastic facial expressions, in each of these bouts of verbal fisticuffs with Romney, Perry came off as as defensive, irritated and less composed -- more belligerent than self-confident.
This may be because Romney has been running for president since well before the 2008 primaries and has never really stopped. And Perry is still relatively new to the national game. This is his third debate, and the new-guy grace period is rapidly running out.
Johnson picked fellow libertarian Paul; Santorum picked Gingrich; Perry wanted to create a Cain-Gingrich hybrid (an image Romney said would stick with him, along with Johnson's dogs); Gringrich, Paul, Romney and Bachmann picked nobody; Cain picked Gingrich; and Huntsman, peeved he couldn't have Wallace, went for Cain and sealed it with a handshake.
Overall, Johnson was feisty and amusing; Santorum was combative on principles; Gingrich tried to rise above it all; Bachmann was largely lost in the shuffle; Paul expressed great interest in moving up from third place; Perry had to keep swinging; Romney swung but still maintained an air of tolerant benevolence; Cain was charming and relaxed; and Huntsman was rather smug about his inevitable victory.
A transcript of the complete debate is available here. Next GOP debate Oct. 11 in Hanover, N.H.
-- Kate O'Hare
Media critic Kate O’Hare is a regular Ticket contributor. She also blogs about TV at Hot Cuppa TV and is a frequent contributor at entertainment news site Zap2it. Also follow O'Hare on Twitter @KateOH.
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Photo: Main screen at the Fox News/Google GOP debate; Rick Perry reacts to Mitt Romey's comment; on-screen quote from Ron Paul; Darrell Owens poses his YouTube question. Credit: Fox News (screenshots)