It's still the Mitt Romney vs. Rick Perry show—but this time, the Texas governor looked a little shaky.
In their third debate in the last two weeks, Perry and Romney clashed repeatedly at Thursday night's Republican presidential debate in Florida, each seeking to gain ground in an increasingly tumultuous 2012 primary race.
Perry strongly defended his stance on Social Security, accusing Romney of trying to mislead voters about his position.
"It's not the first time that Mitt's been wrong on some issues before," Perry declared.
Romney, in turn, accused Perry of trying to backtrack on his controversial statements about Social Security in his most recent book, including his suggestion that the program is a "Ponzi scheme." Romney repeatedly sought to cast the Texas governor as candidate confused by his own positions and words.
"There's a Rick Perry out there that's saying that . . . the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business," Romney retorted. "You'd better find that Rick Perry, and get him to stop saying that."
But Perry refused to let Romney have the last word and accused the former Massachusetts governor of switching positions on health care. As evidence, he cited Romney's book, saying the ex-governor had proposed expanding the health care law he signed in Massachusetts nationwide.
"Then in your paperback you took that line out," Perry noted. "So speaking of not getting it straight in your book, sir."
Romney's position on health care and larger questions about his authenticity as a conservative are the biggest stumbling blocks in his path to the GOP nomination. But while Perry's attacks were smart, the governor's delivery was not assured. Perry repeatedly fumbled through what could have been major blows to his chief GOP rival.
Whether because of his relative inexperience as a debater or due to a simple lack of serious debate preparation, Perry's attacks seemed to have the unintended affect of making Romney, who clearly has been practicing his debate routine, look good.
But it wasn't even Romney or Perry who had the best debate line of the night. It was newcomer Gary Johnson, who in his first debate appearance, offered a crowd-pleasing zinger about President Obama's handling of the economy.
"My next-door neighbor's two dogs have created more shovel-ready jobs than this current administration," Johnson declared, prompting his GOP rivals and the audience to erupt in laughter. (It later came to light that Johnson had lifted the joke from a friend.)
The format of the debate offered more air time to the other candidates in the hunt than the last two forums had. But the other Republican hopefuls still struggled to stand out from the heated two-person battle between Perry and Romney.
Michele Bachmann, who seems to be getting less attention at the debates as her poll numbers fade, did try to gain momentum by repeating two of her previous attacks against Perry: His backing of an executive order in Texas that mandated the vaccination of young girls against HPV and his moderate stance on immigration.
But Bachmann's attacks offered Perry two of his strongest moments in the debate. In response to Bachmann's claims he was influenced on the HPV decision by campaign contributions, Perry looked into the camera and admitted he had been "lobbied" on HPV—by a young woman who had "stage four cervical cancer." For the first time, he noted that he had included an "opt-out" for parents, adding he wasn't sure why that hasn't been talked about.
On immigration, Perry insisted nobody on the stage understands the subject as he does. Both Bachmann and Romney slammed Perry for backing legislation in Texas that allowed the children of illegal immigrants to attend state colleges and universities at the in-state tuition rates—a criticism Perry slammed as heartless.
"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," Perry said, as some in the audience erupted in boos. "We need to be educating these children because they will become a drag on our society. I think that's what Texans wanted to do. "
But Romney quickly responded, again aiming to cast Perry as a confused candidate.
"It's an argument I just can't follow," the ex-governor said.
Not unlike the past debate, the forum included a potentially ugly moment for the party. The presidential hopefuls took a question via YouTube from a openly gay soldier serving Iraq about the possibility of "don't ask, don't tell" being reinstated.
The question was posed to Rick Santorum, but before he answered, there were audible boos in the audience—something he and other GOP candidates on stage didn't acknowledge.