- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Monday’s debate in Tampa proved one thing: The fight for the Republican nomination for president is a two-man matchup. For most of the evening, the spotlight was on Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and the post-debate commentary has centered on which one of those two came out better. While the Texan is still the front-runner, the Florida showdown ended in a draw, and Mr. Perry was on the receiving end of some painful body blows.

The most serious punch was thrown by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who after winning the Iowa straw poll a month ago has seen her Tea Party-based support defect to the Lone Star governor. The Tea Party sponsored the latest debate, and Mrs. Bachmann played to the audience, accusing Mr. Perry of favoring big-government solutions that intrude on private life, particularly in regards to some forced vaccinations against sexually-transmitted disease for schoolgirls that he implemented through executive order. The Minnesota congresswoman didn’t merely take an ideological swipe but charged Mr. Perry with cronyism by saying the vaccination policy was implemented because a former top Perry staffer was the lobbyist in charge of the account. In the days ahead, look for more candidates to shoot arrows at the front-runner for purportedly being too close to businesses and interest groups.

The competition also jumped on Mr. Perry by claiming he really can’t take credit for the growing Texas economy because he is blessed with a rock-solid conservative legislature that does the heavy lifting to draft good bills and all he has to do is sign them into law. “If you’re dealt four aces, that doesn’t necessarily make you a great poker player,” Mr. Romney quipped. This is only partly true. Sure, the state has a responsible House and Senate with majorities that are pro-growth on economics and in general try to hold back the bureaucratic leviathan. That doesn’t mean the chief executive doesn’t deserve a nice pat on the back for not screwing up what’s going right. When government doesn’t meddle, America has the most productive economy in the world. For the most part, Mr. Perry is committed to keeping the state out of the way, and there’s something to be said for simply not messing with a good thing. We could use such restraint in Washington.

The most knock-‘em-down-drag-‘em-out fight of the Tea Party event was over Social Security. Mr. Romney went after Mr. Perry for referring to the federal retirement system as a “Ponzi scheme” in his 2010 book, “Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington.” He asked numerous times, “The real question is, does Gov. Perry continue to believe that Social Security should not be a federal program, that it’s unconstitutional, and it should be returned to the states? Or is he going to retreat from that view?” Mr. Perry retorted that Mr. Romney was just trying to scare seniors. This is an issue that could prove to be a loser for both men. While it might be a plus in retiree-heavy swing states like Florida in a general election, forcefully defending a massive, bankrupt federal program is hardly going to help Mr. Romney win over skeptical conservative primary voters. And if Mr. Perry wins the nomination, he might have trouble with the senior vote if they’re worried about losing their benefits from Uncle Sam.

Fair or not, the Social Security issue exposes the perceived weak spots of the two leading candidates. Right-leaning primary voters are suspicious that Mr. Romney isn’t genuinely conservative, and they are a little nervous that Mr. Perry might lack depth. More debates and lots of time on the stump will shake out answers to both questions.

The consistently impressive performances of the second-tier candidates show how deep this field of elephants is. For the second debate in a row, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was sharp and stayed on message, making many speculate what a formidable challenger he would have been if he hadn’t tripped out of the blocks. Texas Rep. Ron Paul attracted the usual whoops and hollers from his devoted followers, and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain continues to be the most likable and compelling new face in national politics. If political correctness didn’t have everyone in a cold sweat about the supposed backwardness of a national ticket with two white guys on it, former Sen. Rick Santorum - from Pennsylvania, an important swing state - would be an obvious choice for vice president. He is a tough, prepared debater who could make mincemeat of current veep Joe Biden if they went head-to-head.

The diversity of experience and wealth of interesting policy ideas in this group stand in stark contrast to the tired Jimmy Carter-era left-wing agenda of President Obama. Barack should be nervous that voters will no longer believe he’s “The One” next year.

Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. He is coauthor of the forthcoming book “Bowing to Beijing” (Regnery, November 2011).