Perry v. Romney: what the papers say

The verdict of US commentators on the first ever Tea Party-associated Republican presidential debate

The fifth debate in the Republican primaries was significantly different to the four that preceded it, as it was the first-ever Tea Party-affiliated debate in the history of US politics. It was sponsored by CNN and Tea Party Express, the California-based group founded in 2009 to support the Tea Party Movement. The debate was moderated by CNN anchor, Wolf Blitzer.

Texas governor and Tea Party favourite, Rick Perry -- known for his outspoken and conservative views -- came under attack from his fellow contenders over the issues of social security, vaccinations and America's foreign and immigration policies. Perry was also booed by the audience as he defended his policy of allowing in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants in Texas.

Hours before the debate took place, nominee favourites Perry and Mitt Romney both received campaign endorsements. Perry was backed by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, while Romney won the support of former rival candidate Tim Pawlenty. According to a poll conducted by CNN and ORC international, some 30 per cent of Americans said they would support Perry to be the Republican nominee, compared with 18 per cent for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.

Most American journalists and analysts have focused on the arguments between Perry and Romney. Many concluded that Perry came out on top, although others suggested that Perry actually suffered as a result of criticism from his rivals. Some view the debate as a success for Michele Bachmann, who has fallen behind in the ratings since Perry entered the race.

Here is a round-up of what the US media made of the candidates' performance:

CNN

Peter Hamby, CNN Political Reporter:

The debate at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa gave the other candidates on the stage a chance to change what many are portraying as a two-person race between Perry and Romney.

Monday's debate was crucial to Bachmann, who has dropped in national polling since Perry launched his campaign on August 13, the very same day that she won a crucial straw poll in Ames, Iowa.

David Gergen, CNN senior political analyst:

There's no question that Romney and Perry will remain the frontrunners. Romney has a better command of the facts. He's a more practiced debater. He gave one of the best answers of his entire campaign when he was asked how he would balance the budget. But Perry has the command presence, and even though people took shots at him... he deflected reasonably well, he came in as a better debater, he was more even this time.

Erick Erickson, CNN contributor and RedState.com blogger:

I think this may be the first debate where Mitt Romney didn't come out the clear winner. Perry needed to do well. I think he did well. I don't think the Social Security exchange helps Mitt Romney at all at a Republican primary... I think the majority of Republican voters agree with Perry.

Politico

David Catanese:

The real message being delivered was a shot across the bow: Any contender who wants a realistic shot at winning back the White House will need the tea party's fervor to make it happen... Despite solid answers and pre-packaged punches, Mitt Romney struggled to gain traction with the crowd, as his top adviser all but acknowledged afterwards in the spin room.

New York Times

Jeff Zeleny and Ashley Parker:

The rapid rise of Mr Perry, who joined the race only a month ago, made him a central target for his Republican rivals. He sought to deflect the critiques with humor and sarcasm, but he tried to clarify his position on Social Security, whose constitutionality he has questioned... The debate went a long way in clarifying the contours of the Republican contest, both in terms of the strength of the candidates -- for the second time in a row, Mr Romney and Mr Perry were the main players -- but also on the issues driving the race. It is rare in a presidential primary to have such a vivid difference of opinion on a critical issue, as is the case with Mr Romney and Mr Perry on Social Security. The Republican presidential debate often took on the feel of a rollicking political game show... The debate was continually interrupted by applause, but it remained an open question whether the cheers or the jeers provided an accurate reflection of how Republican voters elsewhere were judging the evening.

LA Times

Paul West:

The governor, [Rick Perry] who leads by double-digit margins in early polls, was on the defensive for much of the evening. But he shrugged off most of the attacks with folksy retorts and a bemused look, and he stuck to his guns on the issue that has trailed him since his first national debate appearance last week: Social Security.

The two-hour forum -- the most contentious thus far in the 2012 campaign -- marked a revival of sorts for Michele Bachmann, whose candidacy has suffered as Perry's has taken off over the past month. The two are competing for many of the same conservative votes, but last night the Minnesota congresswoman appeared to have won the hearts of many in the crowd of tea party activists. She drew cheers for a rally-style attack on "Obamacare" -- the president's federal healthcare overhaul -- and for her attack on Perry's controversial decision to order vaccinations in Texas against the HPV virus, which can cause cervical cancer.

The debate's opening felt like a mix between a reality show and a sporting event. Moderator Wolf Blitzer delivered several minutes of introductory remarks above a throbbing bass line, followed by another departure: the singing of the national anthem. ...The event was also something of a formal coming-out party for the tea party movement in the 2012 campaign, a tone set before the telecast began.

Huffington Post

Jon Ward:

The frontrunner status is starting to smart. If Rick Perry felt like a piñata during his first debate last week, the second debate on Monday night might have left the Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate feeling like the bashed-in fax machine in the movie "Office Space". ... Altogether, the three criticisms of Perry chipped away at his image of a rock-ribbed conservative.

As for Bachmann, her fiery attack on Perry was a key moment for the Tea Party favorite. She has been hurt by Perry's entrance into the race - he has overshadowed her with an emphasis on his executive experience and has cut into her support among conservatives. But by tearing the Texan down, Bachmann injected herself back into the race. She still faces an uphill battle against Perry, but if she is to have any chance of staying in the race, she must deconstruct him. All of this helps Romney, who also has seen his standing in the polls diminished by Perry. If Bachmann and Perry are locked in a battle for the right wing of the GOP, that gives Romney a clearer path to the nomination.

The next Republican debate will take place on Thursday 22 September, 2011 in Orlando, Florida. It will be sponsored by Fox News, Google and the Florida Republican Party.

Photo: Pablo via Creative Commons
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Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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