ORLANDO, Fla. — Mitt Romney and Rick Perry were again sparring partners during Thursday night’s Fox News/Google presidential debate, just as they have been at the other two contests this month.
Michele Bachmann, meanwhile, was lost in the fray. The Minnesota Congresswoman, who’s seen her support dwindle since her Iowa straw poll victory six weeks ago, fielded only half a dozen questions over the course of the two-hour debate, at one point interrupting the moderators to make a point after a long period of silence. When she did speak, she mostly kept the focus on President Obama, except for one, anticipated, back-and-forth with Perry.
Their short clash over the HPV vaccination came up late in the night.
Bachmann was asked to explain last week’s remarks about the ties between the vaccine and mental retardation. She said she was simply relaying a story from a woman she’d met on the campaign trail, and then she turned the issue back on Perry.
“Gov. Perry mandated a health care decision on all 12-year-old girls in the state of Texas, and by that mandate, those girls had to have a shot for a sexually translated disease,” she said. “That is not appropriate to be a decision that a governor makes. It’s appropriate that parents make that decision in consultation with a doctor.”
Without using the term, she also repeated her accusations of crony capitalism: “Gov. Perry made a decision where he gave parental rights to a big drug company. That big drug company gave him campaign contributions and hired his former chief of staff to lobby him to benefit the big drug company. That’s what was wrong with that picture.”
Perry stumbled on the HPV issue during the last debate, held just 80 miles from here in Tampa on Sept 12. But last night, he had his answer ready to go.
“I got lobbied on this issue,” he said. “I got lobbied by a 31-year-old lady that had stage-four cervical cancer. I spent a lot of time with her, she came down to my office, she talked to me about this program … The fact is, I erred on the side of life. And I will [always] err on the side of life.”
Bachmann was apparently ready to hit Perry on immigration, as well. Behind the scenes, the campaign issued two press releases on the issue during the course of the debate, but when Bachmann herself got a question on immigration, she spun the focus back to Obama, calling his lawsuit against Arizona’s stringent immigration laws “reprehensible.”
(The campaign’s press releases called out Perry for flip-flopping on his support for that Arizona immigration law. During the debate, Perry said he had supported the legislation. The campaign pointed to Perry’s statement last year that “it would not be the right direction for Texas.” The campaign also hit Perry on his support for providing in-state tuition to illegal immigrants and for opposing a border fence.)
Like other candidates, Bachmann pounced on Obama’s economic policies whenever the opportunity arose.
“Barack Obama thinks that when we earn money, it belongs to him,” she said in response to a question about how much of a person’s income they should get to keep. “You earned every dollar, you should get to keep every dollar.” (Rather than suggest abolishing the income tax, Bachmann later backtracked and said citizens “obviously” have to pay taxes to support the government, but she didn’t expand on that point.)
Romney, meanwhile, followed his prototypical debate strategy: pound Obama and let the attacks from his competitors fall where they may.
He slammed Obama as “[having] done everything wrong for the economy,” and repeated the phrase, “Obama economy” multiple times through the debate, following his general campaign approach of pinning the sputtering economy on the incumbent Democrat.
The real centerpiece of the debate was the continued back-and-forth between Perry and Romney, and by most counts, Romney got the best of the Texas governor on Thursday.
Perry and Romney jabbed each other on social security and health care reform, among other things, and even batted each other on their respective books (“I actually wrote my book,” Romney said in one of the more antagonizing zingers of the night). But Romney, the most polished debater in the field, was able to bat back Perry’s criticisms with ease.
Perry didn’t help himself much with some of his answers, at one point giving a rambling, disjointed soliloquy about Romney’s history of flip-flopping on the issues.
The head-to-head with Romney was “like badminton,” Perry said to applause and laughter at one point early in the debate.
There were six other candidates on stage beside the trio above, including debate newcomer Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico. Other candidates Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman turned in steady performances — there was no new ground covered in this debate that hadn’t already come up during the previous two this month.
Afterward, Bachmann and her staffers kept a positive attitude about her performance.
In the post-debate media scrum at the Orange County Convention Center, Bachmann dismissed a reporter’s question about the front-runner status of Perry and Romney and the way the tension between those two drove the debate.
“I’m planning to become the next president of the United States,” she said. “We all have to be vetted. The Democrats are not going to hold back in the general election, so we all have to be vetted for the American people, they deserve that.”
The campaign’s chief spokeswoman, Alice Stewart, said despite her candidate’s low polling numbers and out-of-the-spotlight status in the debates that it’s not too late for Bachmann to make an impact when voters finally go to the polls next year.
“There’s a lot that’s going to happen between now and the Iowa caucuses,” he said. “The only thing so far that really counts, there’s only [one] check in the W column, and that’s behind Michele’s name, the Iowa straw poll.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related: Bachmann: ‘We don’t have to settle’