Texas Gov. Rick Perry didn't win the G.O.P. debate Tuesday but he managed to rattle frontrunner Mitt Romney.
Rick Perry is still a bad debater. At last night's Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Nevada, he hemmed, hawed and stammered his way through policy statements and attack lines. But for the first time since entering the race, that wasn't a detriment to his overall performance. Perry didn't win the debate, but he didn't lose it either. More importantly, he achieved his main goal: throwing Mitt Romney off of his game.
From the beginning, Perry went after Romney's credentials as a conservative. "I'm Texas Governor Rick Perry, a proven job-creator and a man who is about economic growth, an authentic conservative, not a conservative of convenience," he said, introducing himself to the crowd. Later, Perry joined Rick Santorum's attacks on Romney's former support for Massachusetts's health-care reform, and in the most explosive exchange of the evening, accused the former Massachusetts governor of knowingly employing undocumented workers.
"Mitt, you lose all of your standing, from my perspective," said Perry, "because you hired illegals in your home and you knew about it for a year. And the idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you're strong on immigration is on its face the height of hypocrisy."
Romney's response was swift -- "Rick, I don't think I've ever hired an illegal in my life" — but Perry pressed him on the point, interrupting his rebuttals, attacking his honesty, and goading Romney into losing his cool. It worked. In the course defending himself, Romney gave an anecdote that illustrated the extent to which he is as careerist in his political ambitions as everyone else on the stage, "[W]e went to the company and we said, look, you can't have any illegals working on our property. I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals. It turns out that once question, they hired someone who had falsified their documents, had documents, and therefore we fired them."
After the flare-up between Romney and Perry, the debate settled into familiar territory, as each candidate denounced tax increases, touted the promise of a regulation-free America, pledged to make the United States "respected" again, demonized undocumented immigrants, and presented themselves as the only ones who can beat President Obama in a general election. Because of his recent popularity, Herman Cain came received an unusual amount of criticism, as the candidates attacked his "9-9-9" candidate as either a stealth tax on the poor (as per Rick Santorum) or as a way to impose a value-added tax on the United States, which— if Michele Bachmann's opposition is any indication—is verboten among conservatives within the Republican Party.
After the debate, according to Politico's Mike Allen, a Rick Perry spokesperson gave this assessment to reporters, "[Romney] is extremely thin-skinned. He got very razzled—rattled. And I think that's something we hadn't seen before ... I think you saw a much more confident Governor [Perry]. And I think you saw more of the Rick Perry that I think people in Texas know."
For the last six months, Mitt Romney has managed to avoid any substantial criticism of his record and past ideological heterodoxy. If last night showed anything, it's that Romney is still vulnerable to those attacks, despite the sense of inevitability that surrounds his campaign. Moreover, judging from Herman Cain's popularity, Tea Party conservatives are still looking for an alternative to Romney. If Rick Perry can recover his swagger and turn Romney's record into a liability, then this primary can turn away from a coronation, and into a real contest.