As a former Air Force pilot, Rick Perry knows what happens to the leading plane in any dogfight. It's the target for the ones behind.
And so it was Monday night in Tampa as the unlikely partnership of CNN and the Tea Party Express produced another early Republican primary debate.
It was a good debate for moderator Wolf Blitzer, who kept the pace brisk and worked hard to get everyone involved with 30-second rebuttals.
It was also a good debate for beleaguered President Obama, who sent his doomed jobs bill to Congress in the morning with yet another Rose Garden photo op. Obamacare came in for the usual bashing. Just about everyone in the GOP field will repeal the legislative abomination as soon as they walk into the Oval Office after the parade on Jan. 20, 2013.
Perry wondered last week if he'd become the pinata. But this debate the forceful Mitt Romney, the game Jon Huntsman, the irascible Ron Paul, the earnest son of an Italian immigrant Rick Santorum and the increasingly aggressive Michele Bachmann aimed their fire at the tall Texan whose 30 short days in the race have changed everything and vaulted him into a substantial lead.
Which maintains the appearance of an ongoing race but means absolutely nothing this early. just ask Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson, who lead at this time four years ago.
Bachmann, who rode her tea party leadership to victory in the Ames Straw Poll, was virtually invisible in last week's Reagan Library debate, rhetorically and sartorially. This time she came back in red and went after fellow tea party fave Perry at every chance, mainly over his admitted and aborted mistake of seeking to vaccinate sixth grade girls against the human papilloma virus.
Santorum hit Perry's government mandated vaccination too. And they hit Perry for championing in-state college tuition for children of illegal immigrants and for opposing a border fence with Mexico as not realistic.
Perry, as usual did not back down, but he needs to get smoother in his answers, whose pauses suggest uncertainty. "We were clearly sending a message to young people regardless of what the sound of their last name is that we believe in you," the governor said, adding it's the American way.
Marc Antony, oh, no, it was Mitt Romney actually, was full of praise for Perry's job creation record that grew employment just like his predecessors Democrat Ann Richards and Republican George W. Bush, only fewer, and with the help of oil reserves, Republican courts and Republican legislators.
Asked what he would bring to the White House, pizza exec Herman Cain said a sense of humor, which brought the evening's lone laughter. Along, of course, with his 9-9-9 plan--9% business, income and national sales taxes.
Newt Gingrich kept his criticism aimed at Obama, the main target in previous GOP debates.
Ron Paul again showed why his disciples love him and why he can never win this party's nomination. He is very consistent and firm in his strict constitutionalism themes and isolationism, which earned him boos from the audience of 1,000 conservatives. As he did with Giuliani last cycle, Paul lured Santorum into a fight by suggesting the United States invited the 9/11 attacks by aggression against other lands.
Romney pursued Perry like a prosecutor on Social Security, calling the Texan's Ponzi scheme comment over the top. Bachmann was relentless. She's seized on the inoculation of "little girls" as a violation of freedoms, parental rights and suggested a connection among a drug company, a former Perry aide there, campaign contributions and Perry's executive order.
It's a theme she carried into the post-debate interviews and a somewhat puzzling fundraising email immediately after titled "I'm offended."
Bachmann may also have set a modern debate record for mixed metaphors, talking about the Federal Reserve Bank:"They have got to be shrunk back down to such a tight leash that they're going to squeak."
There are some signs of desperation in the Bachmann camp since Perry's entry and her poll slump. She's cutting back South Carolina campaigning to focus on Iowa and her email solicitation asked for "a special emergency donation" without explaining what the emergency is. Money?
Earlier in the day, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal endorsed Perry and ex-candidate Tim Pawlenty endorsed Romney. Coincidentally, Romney will help pay down Pawlenty's campaign debts.
Speaking of campaign dropouts, the GOP field will winnow in coming weeks from the surviving eight. The next Republican set-to isn't for another nine days, which is about how long it will take you to read Monday's full CNN transcript over here.
Perry's debate debut gives MSNBC top ratings so far
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Mitt Romney: 'We can't lead the world by hoping our enemies will hate us less'
-- Andrew Malcolm
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