Debate Shows GOP 2012 Contest Is a Two-Man Race

Romney and Perry battle over healthcare, Social Security as other candidates fade.

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It's hard to say for sure who won Wednesday night's debate. But the debate proved what most polls show, that the 2012 GOP contest is shaping up to be a two-man race, between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and incumbent Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The two took turns taking shots at each other, while other candidates spent the night trying to get their own jabs in at the duo. While Perry enjoys sizable leads in the polls, Romney still carries the aura as the anointed pick of the party establishment. At this point, it really isn't either man's race to lose.

Romney's clear, competent answers and incisive jabs earned him the "winner" label with most pundits. Perry didn't exactly lose the debate, but he didn't behave like a front-runner, either, and may have disappointed some by failing to seize the moment in his big stage debut.

[See a slideshow of the GOP contenders.]

And the pair's battle over Social Security may have exposed a vulnerability with Perry, whose march to the Republican nomination was beginning to look inevitable. Romney was able to keep Perry on the defensive about comments he made in his book, Fed Up, blasting the program as a "Ponzi scheme." "Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security," Romney said. But while the onslaught may have put Perry back on his heels--leaving some to wonder if he hadn't been fully prepared for the question--Perry may have impressed his rock-ribbed conservative base, by refusing to back down from the comments. He sidestepped the "intellectual" discussion of whether founding Social Security 70 years was a good idea, claiming that its current funding structure and future outlook is, indeed, a sham. He said he made no apologies for using "provocative" language. "It is a monstrous lie, it is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, 'You're paying into a program that's going to be there,'" Perry said.

[Read Robert Schlesinger: Rick Perry's Double Talk on Social Security and the Constitution.]

As is often the case, the actual daylight between the two candidates' stances is much less stark than the rhetoric. Perry hasn't fully articulated his stance on Social Security in this campaign cycle, but in his book he said he supported a retirement safety net which "will allow individuals to own and control their own retirement." Romney has said he opposes privatizing the Social Security, but would allow enrollees to invest some of their money into the markets, although he also supports trimmed benefits as a way to address projected shortfalls in the program. But Romney clearly believes that setting himself up as a defender of Social Security will aid him with GOP voters who are spooked that their benefits may be in jeopardy.

[See cartoons about the 2012 Republican primary.]

Debates aren't necessarily zero-sum contests with clear winners and clear losers. Candidates hope to achieve different reactions from different audiences. Perry's answers opposing the scientific consensus on man-made climate change, his criticism of Obamacare and the individual mandate, and even his strongly worded blasting of Social Security's future will appeal to the most conservative GOP primary voters. Romney's focus on his business background as the key to unraveling America's economic mess aims to appeal more to voters in the GOP establishment. And the clear distinction he sought to draw between Perry's ideological opposition to Social Security and his own pragmatic desire to save it also aims for this key group. While GOP voters are certainly worried about the size of government, many of them, especially older voters, aren't eager to overhaul America's central entitlement programs. The next few months of the GOP primary could be a battle between pragmatic, issue-based voters supporting Romney, and more passionate conservatives rallying behind Perry.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, whose campaign has been slipping in the polls, did little Wednesday night to reverse that trend. It's almost as if, having effectively killed former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's chances in the Iowa Straw Poll and thus pushing him out of the race altogether, her campaign has fulfilled its purpose and is now petering out. Bachmann may still stage a comeback--it would be foolish to count her out of the Iowa contest, where her credentials with social conservatives give her a strong advantage--but she's still long away from building the national momentum she'd need to move beyond that state. Texas Rep. Ron Paul fired up his fervent core of supporters, but likely won few converts. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman likely impressed GOP moderates, but that's not a viable way to win the nomination. None of the rest of the candidates stood out during a debate dominated by fireworks between Romney and Perry.