Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) fought tooth and nail in Thursday’s GOP presidential debate, each portraying the other as inconsistent and working to convince voters his opponent is out of touch with America on the proper role of government.
But some of the heavier questions of the evening — on social issues and foreign policy — were only addressed to the other candidates, instead of the two front-runners.
The Fox News/Google debate got off to a slow start and seemed to lag at times, hinting that after three debates in three weeks, the candidates might have been getting tired.
But there were sparks of banter between the two front-runners, and even a few moments of laughter.
The main battle of the evening was between Perry and Romney, whose aggressive back-and-forth on Social Security had been foreshadowed by days of escalating attacks, with Perry claiming Romney had no plan to fix Social Security and Romney accusing Perry of wanting to dismantle the program.
"For those people who are on Social Security today, for those people who are approaching Social Security, they don't have anything in the world to worry about," Perry said before accusing Romney of misstating his position for political gain. "It's not the first time Mitt's been wrong about some issues before."
Romney balked, claiming he’s been consistent throughout and that Perry is the one putting seniors at risk.
"We must make it very, very clear that Social Security is the responsibility of the federal government, not the state governments," Romney replied. "I'm absolutely committed to keeping Social Security working.”
All candidates seemed convinced that Perry was the man to beat.
A USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday had Perry in the lead with 31 percent of the vote, followed by Romney with 24 percent and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) with 13 percent.
Perry seemed uncomfortable at times when put on the defensive, grinning at other times as opponents launched attack after attack.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) was the first candidate other than Romney to attack Perry head on, and once he got started, he didn't relent until moderator Chris Wallace finally cut him off.
In a round about immigration reform, Santorum criticized the Texas governor for allowing children of illegal immigrants in Texas to attend public universities at in-state rates.
"Yes, I would say that he is soft on illegal immigration," Santorum said, noting that Perry opposes building a fence along the border with Mexico and has spoken about the possibility of cross-border health insurance policies.
"I don't even think Barack Obama would be for binational health insurance," Santorum said.
Paul took an even harder line on immigration, arguing that children born to illegal immigrants shouldn’t automatically become U.S. citizens.
“What you need to do is attack their benefits: no free education, no free subsidies, no citizenship, no birthright citizenship,” Paul said.
Some audience members booed a gay soldier who asked via video whether the candidates would reinstitute the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy banning gay soldiers from serving openly. The policy’s repeal went into effect this week.
None of the GOP candidates responded to the audience’s reaction.
Santorum said he would reinstate the policy, arguing that sex has no place in the military, regardless of orientation, but declining to mention that no policy barred service for openly heterosexual soldiers.
“What we're doing is playing social experimentation with — with our military right now. And that's tragic,” he said.
It was notable that neither Perry nor Romney was asked by moderators to respond on that issue. Nor were they asked to respond to a question on U.S. policy in regard to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBoehner says he voted for Trump, didn't push back on election claims because he's retired Boehner: Trump 'stepped all over their loyalty' by lying to followers Boehner finally calls it as he sees it MORE (R-Minn.) had an opportunity to try to put to bed the HPV vaccine issue that has plagued her campaign since remarks she made in the last debate tying the vaccine to mental retardation. Bachmann’s strategy Thursday was to refocus the conversation on Perry.
"Gov. Perry made a decision where he gave parental rights to a big drug company. That big drug company gave him big campaign contributions," Bachmann said.
Perry had a quick and seemingly practiced response that attempted to bring the conversation back to his socially conservative bona fides.
"I got lobbied on this issue. I got lobbied by a 31-year-old young lady who had Stage 4 cervical cancer," a disease caused by HPV, Perry said. "I've readily admitted we should have had an opt-in in this program, but I don't know what part of opt-out most parents don't get. And the fact is, I erred on the side of life."
One issue where the Republican candidates went after President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAbrams targets Black churchgoers during campaign stops for McAuliffe in Virginia Virginia race looms as dark cloud over Biden's agenda The root of Joe Biden's troubles MORE instead of each other was Israel, where the consensus was that Obama hasn’t sufficiency supported the Jewish state.
"The president went about this all wrong. He went around the world and apologized for America," said Romney, repeating an early statement that Obama has thrown Israel "under the bus."
The issue was particularly timely due to a scheduled bid by Palestinians this week to seek recognition of statehood in the United Nations.
"If you disagree with an ally, you talk about it privately, but publicly you stand shoulder to shoulder," Romney said.
Romney claimed Obama criticized Israel for West Bank settlements but didn't mention Palestinian terrorist groups, although Obama has frequently referred to both settlements and terrorism targeting Israel.
"If you mess with Israel, you're messing with the United States of America," said businessman Herman Cain. "If in fact it was clear to the Palestinians where the U.S. stood, they might have had second thoughts about trying to pull such a move."
The recent days of the campaign have brought attacks on Perry for what his opponents claim is a dovish policy on the wars the United States is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it was former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) who moved to the left Thursday on foreign policy.
“After 10 years of fighting the war on terror, people are ready to bring our troops home from Afghanistan,” said Huntsman, Obama’s former ambassador to China.
Libertarian-leaning former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson seemed nervous through much of Thursday's debate — his first debate performance since May — but he pulled himself together for one of evening's more memorable lines.
"My next-door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration," Johnson joked.
The audience, and his fellow contenders, burst into laughter.
In a lightning round closing the debate where candidates were asked which of their competitors they’d choose as a running mate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) punted.
"I'm going to disappoint those who want this to be a Hollywood game,” Gingrich said. “These are all good friends of mine. I couldn't imagine hurting one of their feelings by picking one."
In the audience of Thursday's debate were many of the thousands of Republican voters — carefully screened by the Florida GOP — who on Saturday will select a winner for Florida's Presidency 5 Straw Poll.
Romney and Bachmann are not actively campaigning for the poll but will still be on the ballot, and their performance in the debate was their major chance to win the support of the poll's participants.
The expectations are high for Perry to sweep the poll, and if he wins by a narrow margin, Romney and Bachmann could use that to bolster their argument that Perry isn't the best candidate to carry the GOP through next November. Every winner of the P5 poll has gone on to be the Republican nominee, although the poll wasn't held during the last presidential election.
— Cameron Joseph contributed.
— This story was originally posted at 9:42 p.m. and updated at 11:44 p.m.