With the specter of Ronald Reagan -- or at least the looming presence of his old airplane -- as the backdrop, the Republican presidential candidates met in California last night for a debate cohosted by NBC News and Politico. It was the fourth of this campaign, but the first to include all the major candidates; Texas Governor Rick Perry, the current frontrunner in national polls, took to the stage for the first time, and whereas past debates had largely showed the degree to which the candidates agreed with each other, last night they began -- finally -- to attack each other on policy.
Eight Republicans crowded onto the stage, but there seemed to be only two real candidates in the race: Perry and former pack leader Mitt Romney. The two clashed within moments after the debate's open, and they drove the topics of conversation.
The two began by disagreeing over which of the former governors had the better record on job creation. "Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt," Perry quipped. "Well, as a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor," Romney responded.
Moderators and other candidates pressured Perry on controversial claims he made in his book Fed Up!. "Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security," Romney said. Perry didn't back away from his claim that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme."
"If Vice President Cheney or anyone else says that the program that we have in place today, and young people who are paying into that, expect that program to be sound, and for them to receive benefits when they reach retirement age, that is just a lie," Perry said. "And I don't care what anyone says. We know that, the American people know that, but more importantly, those 25-and-30-year-olds know that."
The most chilling moment of the debate came near the end, when NBC's Brian Williams questioned Perry's stance on the death penalty. "Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times," Williams began, but was interrupted by the audience with the loudest applause of the night. He continued, asking Perry if he had ever "struggled to sleep at night" over the possibility that some of those individuals may have been innocent. Perry held no such doubts. Perry brought on the cowboy swagger. "No, sir," Perry said. "I've never struggled with that at all ... in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed."
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman continued his role as the candidate there to fulfill the media's fantasy of the sensible Republican who bucks his party's talking points. Unlike his first debate appearance last month, in which Huntsman appeared to dither, he took every opportunity to turn his guns on his own party Wednesday night: he told Romney not to "enter a trade war" with China, pointed to the absurdity of Michele Bachmann's $2 gas pledge, and said that he hoped when "we deal with this immigration issue, will always see it as an issue that resolves around real human beings."
Late in the debate, Huntsman was called on to defend his statements that the Republican Party is becoming anti-science. He did not name names, but it was a clear indictment of the others on the stage. "Listen," he said, "when you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I'm saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science. We can't run from mainstream conservative philosophy." Huntsman came away looking like the moderate of the room.
After dominating the early debates, Michele Bachmann was relegated to the sidelines, having as much presence as candidates like Rick Santorum and Herman Cain. Her opponents dismissed Bachmann's outlandish promise that she would lower the price of gas to $2 if elected, and at no other point did her views drive the discussion. Now that Rick Perry is in the field as the presumed candidate of choice for social conservatives, there seems to be no room left for the Tea Party's favorite.
Labor Day has been traditionally viewed as the unofficial kickoff to campaign season. Now that it has come and gone, the candidates will be in full-on engagement mode. They'll be meeting for another debate, this time in Florida, next Monday, then followed quickly by another debate on the 22nd of the month.