The Republican presidential candidates pivoted in their debate last night from mostly attacking President Obama to attacking each other.
The focal point was a sparring match between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who are considered the GOP front runners. They went head-to-head from the start.
Romney accused Perry of scaring seniors and going too far in condemning Social Security as an unconstitutional "Ponzi scheme" that might operate better as a state program rather than a federal one. Perry shot back by reminding Romney that the former Massachusetts governor had also called for changes in Social Security, but Romney replied that he wasn't calling for an end to the program and was careful not to frighten retirees.
Romney also took Perry to task over the economy. Romney, a former businessman, said Perry was taking credit for conditions in Texas that Perry inherited, such as having no income tax and having a large amount of oil in the ground for development. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said taxes have actually gone up in Texas under Perry.
But Perry calmly said more than a million jobs were created in Texas during his tenure as governor in part because of his policies. Perry said people are moving to his home state because the economic climate there is better than in the rest of the country.
The sniping at Perry is important because it shows that the GOP race has moved to a more advanced stage. Now the candidates are trying to establish differences with each other that will bring them contributions and actual votes in the GOP caucuses and primaries that start early next year, rather than simply blasting President Obama.
In the debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota turned in a spirited performance, as predicted here. She criticized Perry's support for a program requiring that a cervical cancer vaccine be administered to many 11- and 12-year old girls. Bachmann said this was government overreach, and Perry conceded that he had made a mistake. Bachmann also tried to tie Perry's support for the program to a contribution from Merck, the pharmaceutical company, to Perry's gubernatorial campaign. Perry said the contribution and the policy were not connected.
Bachmann portrayed herself as a genuine conservative who would take on the powers that be. She called herself the "leading voice" in opposing an increase in the federal debt ceiling. "You have to draw a line in the sand somewhere," she said.
The two-hour debate was held in Tampa, Florida and moderated by Wolf Blitzer of CNN. It was sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express.