The nuttily over-the-top setup to last night's the CNN/Tea Party Express Republican Debate heralded the candidates like prize fighters: Mitt Romney as the Early Front-Runner; Rick Perry as the Newcomer, Michele Bachmann as the Firebrand, etc. True to the party theme, the contenders came out swinging, with Bachmann and Romney in particular thumping Perry at nearly every opportunity. Here, a few highlights from the slugfest:
• Pressed by moderator Wolf Blitzer about his sudden shift on Social Security – he's gone calling it a from "Ponzi scheme" to saying it must be saved and reformed – Perry began by backing away from his earlier position. "Slam-dunk guaranteed," said the Texas governor, "that program is going to be there in place for those individuals that are moving towards [it]." Romney, reasonably enough, quoted Perry's book Fed Up! back to him, asking whether he still believed Social Security should be ended as a federal program. Perry's lame comeback: "we ought to have a conversation."
• Blitzer asked Romney for his thoughts on Perry's strong jobs record as Texas governor (how much credit Perry deserves for his state's impressive jobs growth is hotly disputed). Romney came back with a pretty effective down-home zinger: "If you're dealt four aces," he said, "that doesn't make you necessarily a great poker player."
• Ron Paul, a Texan, on Perry's jobs record. "Our taxes have doubled since he's been in office. Our spending has gone up double. Our debt has gone up nearly triple…. And 170,000 of the jobs [added in Texas] were government jobs. So I would put a little damper on this, but I don't want to offend the governor, because he might raise my taxes or something."
• Incredible disappearing candidate Michele Bachmann rematerialized to rip Perry a new one over his bid, in 2007, to mandate HPV vaccinations for young girls. Perry, on the defensive, allowed as how he'd have "done it differently … gone to the legislature, worked with them," if he had his time again. Bachmann accused him of putting in harm's way "little girls who have a negative reaction to this potentially dangerous drug." She went on: "The drug company [Merck, which produced the vaccine] gave thousands of dollars in political donations to the governor, and this is just flat-out wrong. The question is, is it about life, or was it about millions of dollars and potentially billions for a drug company?" Perry's less-than-winning retort was that Merck had donated a mere $5,000 to his "$30 million" campaign, and that he was "offended" by Bachmann's insinuation that he could be "bought for $5,000." (How much, then?)
• Ron Paul let his Code Pink side show on foreign policy and terrorism: "We are still in danger, but most of the danger comes by our lack of wisdom on how we run our foreign policy… So I would say a policy – a foreign policy that takes care of our national defense, that we're willing to get along with people and trade with people, as the founders advised, there's no authority in the Constitution to be the policeman of the world, and no nation-building." The reaction this elicited from the usually Paul-friendly Tea Party audience – boos, and more boos – shows how little the GOP has learned in the ten years since 9/11. Goaded by Rick Santorum, Paul said that "as long as this country follows [the idea of American exceptionalism], we're going to be under a lot of danger."
• The least edifying moment of the night came when Blitzer asked Paul what he'd do if an otherwise healthy 30-year-old man without health insurance needed six months of intensive care to survive: "Are you saying that society should just let him die?" While Paul wrestled with his answer, the audience … didn't: "Yeah!" came the answer, to applause.