Rick Perry goes in hard at his first presidential debate

"Maybe it's time to have provocative language in this country."

Rick Perry, the Texas governor, made his debut appearance in a presidential debate last night - and he went in hard, defying those who had predicted he would seek a quiet, safe approach.

From the word go, Perry went for Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. The collision between the two dominated the 105-minute debate, appearing to confirm that these two are the frontrunners, as the other six candidates remained on the sidelines.

The strategy seems to have worked, with Perry almost instantly over-taking Romney in the opinion polls. But did he go a step too far with his comments on social security?

His views on the issue have long been seen as potentially damaging in the context of a general election, but Perry refused to back down on the matter, saying:

You cannot keep the status quo in place and call it anything other than a Ponzi scheme

Romney pointed out that Karl Rove, Perry's former adviser, said that language would be "toxic" in a general election, to which Perry replied:

You know, Karl has been over the top for a long time in some of his remarks. So I'm not responsible for Karl anymore.

Romney's campaign has gone hard on the social security question, firing off an email headlined "Perry Does Not Believe Social Security Should Exist," backed up with multiple quotes.

In this debate, Perry proved himself to be a serious and credible candidate, although Romney may still have broader appeal. Over at the Washington Post, Michael Gerson writes that Romney "seemed more electable than anyone else on the stage".

However, there were some alarming reminders of how far the parameters of this contest have shifted to the right. At one point, the moderator, Brian Williams, said to Perry: "Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times." The audience interrupted with a spontaneous burst of applause. Williams continued with: "Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?" Perry's response? "No sir. I've never struggled with that at all."

As American politics becomes more partisan, and rhetoric more heated than ever, the Republican primary is perhaps not the place to look to for restraint. Asked at one point if he wanted to reconsider his language, Perry said:

Maybe it's time to have provocative language in this country.

The Tea Party certainly agrees; it remains to be seen whether the majority of GOP voters do too.

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Emmanuel Macron offers Theresa May no comfort on Brexit

The French presidential candidate warned that he would not accept "any caveat or any waiver" at a press briefing in London.

Emmanuel Macron, the new wunderkind of French politics, has brought his presidential campaign to London. The current favourite to succeed François Hollande has a natural electoral incentive to do so. London is home to 300,000 French voters, making it by France's sixth largest city by one count (Macron will address 3,000 people at a Westminster rally tonight). But the telegenic centrist also took the time to meet Theresa May and Philip Hammond and to hold a press briefing.

If May hoped that her invitation would help soften Macron's Brexit stance (the Prime Minister has refused to engage with his rival Marine Le Pen), she will have been left disappointed. Outside No.10, Macron declared that he hoped to attract "banks, talents, researchers, academics" away from the UK to France (a remark reminiscent of David Cameron's vow to "roll out the red carpet" for those fleeing Hollande). 

At the briefing at Westminster's Central Hall, Macron quipped: "The best trade agreement for Britain ... is called membership of the EU". With May determined to deliver Brexit, he suggested that the UK would have to settle for a Canadian-style deal, an outcome that would radically reduce the UK's market access. Macron emphasised that he took a a "classical, orthodox" view of the EU, regarding the "four freedoms" (of people, capital, goods and services) as indivisible. Were Britain to seek continued financial passporting, the former banker said, it would have to make a significant budget "contribution" and accept continued immigration. "The execution of Brexit has to be compliant with our interests and the European interest".

The 39-year-old avoided a nationalistic tone ("my perspective is not to say France, France, France") in favour of a "coordinated European approach" but was unambiguous: "I don't want to accept any caveat or any waiver to what makes the single market and the EU." Were the UK, as expected, to seek a transitional arrangement, it would have to accept the continued jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

Elsewhere, Macron insisted that his liberal economic stance was not an obstacle to his election. It would be fitting, he said, if the traditionally "contrarian" France embraced globalisation just as its counterparts were rejecting it. "In the current environment, if you're shy, you're dead," he declared. With his emotional, straight-talking approach (one derided by some as intellectually threadbare), Macron is seeking to beat the populists at their own game.

But his views on Brexit may yet prove academic. A poll published today showed him trailing centre-right candidate François Fillon (by 20-17) having fallen five points since his denunciation of French colonialism. Macron's novelty is both a strength and a weakness. With no established base (he founded his own party En Marche!), he is vulnerable to small swings in the public mood. If Macron does lose, it will not be for want of confidence. But there are unmistakable signs that his forward march has been halted. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.