TAMPA, Fla. — Texas Gov. Rick Perry is suddenly vulnerable with the conservative voters he must corral to win the Republican presidential nomination.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has his eye on more mainstream Republicans, and he continues methodically to gain their respect with his emphasis on fixing the broken economy.
Those were the key impressions from Monday's debate at Tampa's Florida State Fairgrounds. The eight major GOP candidates will debate again next week in Orlando. Perry and Romney remain 1-2 in most national polls.
While each still faces difficult paths to the GOP nomination, Perry's now looks a little more bumpy.
"Perry was a little rattled," said Susan MacManus, a professor of government at the University of South Florida. The governor endured sharp challenges Monday about his views on Social Security, immigration, executive power, cronyism and other topics that conservative activists care deeply about.
The Tea Party Express co-sponsored Monday's debate, and some of the grass-roots conservative movement's supporters liked how Perry was just being himself.
"Perry was plainspoken, and the American people are tired of slick-talking politicians," said Dustin Stockton, chief strategist for TheTeaParty.net.
But Perry clearly was staggered from the right, raising questions about his strength among conservatives, whose loyalties are divided. Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and businessman Herman Cain still have sizable followings, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich remain popular with them as well.
Conservatives are adamant that government is too intrusive, and Perry's foes hit him where it could hurt the most, notably in his terse exchange with Bachmann. They clashed over Perry's executive order that young girls get vaccinated against human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted disease and a major cause of cervical cancer.
"To have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong. That should never be done. It's a violation of a liberty interest," Bachmann protested.
Perry's comeback: He conceded that he should have sought legislative approval rather than issued an executive order, but he said he'd acted to protect life. His spokesmen contend that Perry at least sticks to his principles, unlike Romney, who opponents say has changed his positions on health care and other matters.
"At the end of the day, you may criticize me about the way that I went about it, but at the end of the day, I am always going to err on the side of life," Perry said.
Perry has a subtle challenge: He must stay mainstream enough to remain viable in the general election if he wins the nomination, even as he appeals to his more conservative tea party base.
That's why Romney's digs at Perry's Social Security statements — the Texan has called the system a "failure," a "Ponzi scheme," unconstitutional and one that would be better run by states — could hurt him, particularly in crucial Florida, where two-thirds of GOP 2008 primary voters were older than 50.
"A lot of (senior) women in Florida are Republicans because of their affluence, but there are issues that tap into their vulnerability," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration and policy at Florida State University. Social Security is one of those issues, and Perry's stand "well could be" lethal with those voters, he said.
MacManus thought Perry's answers Monday on immigration eventually could prove problematic to a general public still learning about him.
Supporters said his defense of Texas in-state tuition aid for illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship was a principled stand.
But, MacManus said, "A lot of baby boomers have kids in college or about to go to college, and they're saying, 'I have trouble getting my kid into the university.' This could resonate."
Romney appears to have an easier path to wooing the moderate-conservative voters he's targeting, an important contingent in Florida. The Sunshine State is likely to be first big-state nominating test next year, and the mainstream Republican message often has played well here.
Arizona Sen. John McCain won the Florida primary in 2008 with 36 percent of the vote. Romney got 31 percent, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani got 15 percent.
Romney has been preparing meticulously for big-state campaigns, aimed at wooing establishment Republicans, for some time. His top economic advisers include two former chairmen of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush. Hours before Monday's debate, he announced an endorsement from like-minded Tim Pawlenty, a former Minnesota governor who dropped out of the race last month.
Romney's goal Monday, other than to deflate Perry, was to stress two themes, adviser Ron Kaufman said: rationality and turnaround. Romney would stay calm, describe his seven-point economic plan, try to speak conversationally and claim that his experience in the private sector qualified him to repair the economy.
Yet Romney still didn't win over tea party conservatives. "He had some good talking points, but a lot rings hollow with tea party members who know his record," said Andrew Hemingway, the chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire.
Romney, at least for now, has this advantage: He's been running for president since 2007, and so far he's been notably surefooted in debates. The public is still getting to know Perry, who stumbled a bit Monday night under the repeated assaults from his rivals.
Perry "came out with a flawless beginning," said Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, referring to the governor's rapid rise to the top of polls after announcing his candidacy last month. "Now we're getting a more detailed evaluation of his strengths and weaknesses."
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