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.

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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism