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.

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".