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Perry's Debate Debut Suggests Texas-Sized Hurdles Ahead

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (right) takes the stage with Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann before Wednesday night's GOP presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley,  Calif.
David McNew
AFP/Getty Images
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (right) takes the stage with Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann before Wednesday night's GOP presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has always had a mantra of sorts that he would frequently resort to when taking heat from opponents during political debates back home.

It went something like this: Texas is great. People want to live here. Businesses want to move here. And, by the way, Texas is great.

Unfortunately for Perry, he couldn't play the card that served him so well in his three terms as governor during his first presidential debate Wednesday night.

Invoking Texas pride wouldn't wash away the tough questions that the new GOP front-runner faced from moderators about the state's worst-in-the-nation high school dropout rates.

Or its highest-in-the-nation percentage of uninsured residents.

Or how many of the new Texas jobs that he touts as his campaign's centerpiece are minimum- and low-wage.

And it couldn't save him from a stumbling defense of his skepticism about climate change science in which he invoked the Italian scientist Galileo, who was tried for heresy in the 1600s for promoting the theory that the Earth revolves around the sun.

"Just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said, 'here is the fact' — Galileo got outvoted for a spell," Perry said.

The storyline that emerged immediately after the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California was Perry's decision to provocatively (in his words) stick with his characterization of Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie." And former front-runner Mitt Romney's deft pivot, saying he's the candidate committed to saving Social Security, not "abolishing it."

But while Social Security was all the talk, it's the fuller Texas picture under the leadership of Perry — the longest-serving governor in that state's history — that ultimately may have as much resonance with a national audience seeing him for the first time Wednesday. And who will see him again Monday when the eight GOP presidential candidates debate in Florida.

The debate solidified that the real race for the GOP nomination, for now, remains between Perry and Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and venture capitalist.

Romney took some hits of his own Wednesday for overseeing a health care overhaul in Massachusetts similar to President Obama's plan, and for the state's bottom-of-the-barrel job creation under his watch.

With an unsuccessful 2008 presidential run in his past and a campaign that has been ongoing since, Romney's strengths and weaknesses have been fully cataloged and his persona is familiar to voters nationwide.

He was prepared and confident enough on stage to challenge Perry, not only on Social Security, but also on the Texas governor's biggest selling point: that Texas created more jobs over the past decade than the rest of the nation combined.

Perry didn't create the job-friendly environment, Romney asserted. He said that came from a Republican legislature, a Republican Supreme Court, big oil and gas reserves. Perry, he argued, was simply a lifelong government worker who was the accidental beneficiary of the state's jobs successes.

Romney added that Perry's job creation claims are like Al Gore taking credit for inventing the Internet. It was a big laugh line and a way for Romney to slyly raise Gore's name: Perry, a Democrat before the 1990s, was a state chairman for the former vice president's short-lived 1988 presidential run.

After the early jobs skirmish with Perry, and his Social Security rejoinder, Romney directed most of his fire at Obama.

But Wednesday's event revealed much about how the two front-runners for the GOP nomination may conduct their races going forward. It suggested that Romney has settled on a strategy to take some air out of Perry's jobs claims, and that he will be a moderating voice on issues like Social Security. The program's trustees estimate that it is solvent for another 25 years, and sustainable beyond that with minor fixes.

He'll keep flirting with the increasingly unpopular Tea Party movement, and touting his private sector business experience.

The debate also suggested that Perry isn't afraid of the stage or of controversy. On Monday, he'll take his Social Security stance to Florida, where recent-year estimates show that more than 3.4 million residents receive benefits from the program. Does he moderate his Ponzi assertions? Or, the better question, how can he moderate those assertions now?

It suggested that boasting about not losing sleep over the execution of 234 death row inmates under his watch — "I've never struggled with that at all," he said — may be an applause line at a GOP debate, but it's something else to many Americans who struggle with the potential for innocent people being put to death.

And it suggested that Perry will have to find better explanations for why his state is in the state it's in, jobs aside, or else his opponents will happily provide their version of the Texas miracle.

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.