GOP Presidential Hopefuls Set To Debate

Sep 22, 2011
Originally published on September 22, 2011 5:01 pm



The Republican candidates for president will gather for another debate tonight, this time in Orlando, Florida. It's sponsored by Fox News and YouTube, and some of the questions will be submitted by homemade video from voters. The debate also comes as a new two-man dynamic is emerging in the race: Texas Governor Rick Perry versus former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.


NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is in Orlando and she joins us now.

Mara, what do you expect tonight from these two men, the former frontrunner Romney and the new frontrunner Perry?

MARA LIASSON: Well, I expect them to do what they've been doing to each other for over the last couple of days, which is pounding each other. Governor Romney is attacking Governor Perry, pressing him to either repeat or repudiate some things he's said in the past about Social Security, saying he might want it to devolve to the states. He doesn't think it was constitutional. He wants to show Perry is either not prepared to talk about policy and/or not electable.

Perry has been fighting back with an attack on Romney that questions Romney's conservative credentials - which is Romney's weakness - saying that Romney sounds like a Democrat. He's trying to scare seniors about Social Security. And yesterday, he said Romney - as he often does in the past - has forgotten he's a Republican.

NORRIS: Governor Perry made quite an entrance into this race. He rocketed to the top of the field as soon as he got in. Have the attacks from Romney, the attacks from the other candidates, the intense media scrutiny - has all of this taken a bit of a toll on his record and his standing?

LIASSON: Well, there are some polls that show it might have. There's a new South Carolina poll that shows Romney surprisingly within three points of Perry in a state where Perry should do very, very well. There are some national polls that show the gap between how Romney runs against Obama and Perry runs against Obama to be widening.

But Perry is a newcomer. As Karl Rove said this week, his support is based on what people believe him to be rather than what they know him to be and they're just getting to know him. He has seemed, surprisingly to some Republicans, unprepared in the two debates that he's participated in so far, hasn't really gotten his sea legs yet, but he still is the frontrunner.

NORRIS: And is this, in some ways, more than just a fistfight between the would-be frontrunners? Is this also an ideological clash? Do Romney and Perry represent two very different wings of the GOP?

LIASSON: Well, I think they do, although I don't think Governor Romney would say they do. A lot of this is about style, how they talk about the issues, but it's also a question for Republican voters. Do they want a sober businessman, a manager like Romney, who is all about jobs and the economy, a very general election message, or do they want a transformational conservative like Perry? Some Republicans may be all about the economy, but a lot of them are about conservative reform and change. And I think that's what the voters are going to have to decide.

You know, Romney is making a very left-brain argument about electability for what is a very right-brain party right now. He's saying, think with your head, think about who could better beat Obama in the fall, that's the most important criteria.

But a lot of Republicans say, why should we think about that when the president looks so weak? There's a new poll out that shows President Obama under a 40 percent approval rating in Florida and they're thinking either of these guys could win, why not go with the guy we like better?

NORRIS: Perry and Romney won't be the only two people on that stage. There will be nine candidates all together on stage, including former New Mexico governor, Gary Johnson. How can the other candidates hope to break through this evening?

LIASSON: I don't know if the other candidates can. I think this really is a two-man race, but I do think the stakes are highest for Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who damaged herself by making a comment after the last debate that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. There wasn't any evidence that was correct and she was roundly criticized for it, so the stakes are highest for her.

NORRIS: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, speaking to us from Orlando. Mara, thank you very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Michele. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.