The big story at the Republican debate at the Reagan Library was Rick Perry’s debut on the presidential stage. The question for the GOP was whether the Texas governor who vaulted to a huge lead after entering the race last month could sustain that margin in the heat of the battle. The answer was that by the end of the evening nothing had changed. Despite constant attacks from his opponents, Perry is still way ahead and set up to win the nomination easily.
Mitt Romney will skewer Perry for calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and Democrats will hammer him on that point in a general election. But nothing he said will hurt him in the GOP primaries. Though Romney will attempt to gain traction as the more electable Republican, his failure to dent Perry’s armor bodes ill for his hopes to overcome the Texan’s enormous advantage with the conservative voters who make up the GOP base.
Rather than playing it safe as would be expected for a frontrunner with a big lead, Perry went on the attack himself going directly after Romney on jobs and health care. Though he would falter at times later in the debate, especially when challenged on global warming by the moderators, even on those points that his critics will claim to be gaffes Perry lost no ground with the people who decide the Republican race.
Even though Romney did well, the debate nevertheless confirmed the dynamic of the GOP race that has emerged since Perry’s entrance. Romney is the only other Republican with a reasonable path to victory but his strategy of tilting to the middle of the road in order to compete with Perry is a certain loser in the vast majority of the 2012 primaries. Michele Bachmann has faded out of contention and now must be considered unlikely even to put forth a serious challenge to Perry even in Iowa where she has devoted so much time over the last few months. None of the other candidates have a prayer so that leaves Perry ready to cruise to the nomination.
This sets up a primary season which may bear a strong resemblance to 2000 when the only serious challenge to the nomination of another Texas governor came from a Republican who tried to win by running to the center. John McCain had no chance of beating George W. Bush 12 years ago and, if anything, the Republican Party is even more conservative today than it was then. That means Romney’s hopes of stopping Perry must be considered to be even slimmer than McCain’s were of beating Bush.
The 2000 Republican presidential nomination was decided early as Bush steamrollered McCain despite a loss in New Hampshire. Unless Perry does something a lot worse than using rhetoric about Social Security that the GOP core applauds, he will do the same to Romney next year. Right now it looks as if a Republican race that was thought to be quite competitive will be a snore.