The fight between Perry and Romney continues. Perry came into this debate confident in his conservative bona fides and hoped to use the weight of that confidence to steamroll Romney. The former Massachusetts governor, for his part, responded with an array of facts, figures, and arguments.
The Social Security component was interesting. Romney ended up highlighting the distinction that many Perry partisans are trying to obscure: while Romney and many others have suggested that the financing of Social Security may be a problem, Perry in his most recent book has claimed that Social Security seems to be in some way contrary to the Constitution. Romney tried to get an answer out of Perry about whether he still thought Social Security was unconstitutional, but Perry seemed focused on avoiding answering that. If he wants to win the nomination and go on to the presidency, Perry is going to have to clarify his position on Social Security. Does he want to reform it (as he now says) or does he think it's an unconstitutional abomination? Even in a rabidly pro-Perry audience (at least in the beginning), Perry seemed to stumble at certain points in this exchange. The audiences at debates with Obama won't be so congenial.
Santorum and Bachmann have realized an electoral reality: their only path to the nomination is through Rick Perry. Bachmann knew she had a rough debate last week. So she came into this one looking for some moments, and she found them. She went beyond criticizing Perry's Gardasil executive order as an overreach; she suggested it was due to undue corporate influence. That's probably the most personal slam Perry has faced yet in the race posed by a rival. She also didn't let Perry slide on his immigration record.
Bachmann regained her stride in this debate, and Santorum found it. Between hitting Perry, going toe-to-toe with Ron Paul, and offering relatively detailed answers to policy questions, Santorum positioned himself as a solid, competent conservative who is also electable (hence his persistent emphases on his ability to win in Pennsylvania). Some pundits might find Santorum's references to events of the 1990s to be dated, but many voters (left, right, and center) look back on the 90s with fondness. Santorum may be trying to offer a path back to prosperity.
As with the last debate, Gingrich played the conciliator. As with the last debate, Ron Paul couldn't wait to attack Perry as a conservative pretender, hitting him on increasing Texas taxes and spending.
Bachmann and Santorum may have succeeded in putting a few chips in the conservative finish of Rick Perry's reputation. Perry has been greatly helped by the aura of authentic conservatism. If that sense is challenged, he could struggle more as a candidate.
In order to distract from last week's Social Security debate, many Perry supporters went on attack against Romney, accusing him of taking from the Democratic playbook (apparently defending the Constitutionality of Social Security is supposed to be the purview of Democrats now?). If those attacks are doubled down on over the next few days, we might have an indication of how concerned Perry's camp is over this debate.
I'd guess Perry lost ground tonight with the right (over immigration and Gardasil) and the center (over Social Security). Romney held his own. Bachmann and Santorum gained. I think the primary is still very fluid (as it should be). And there might still be room for other candidates to jump in.