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GOP presidential debate focuses on economic policy

ORLANDO, Fla. ó Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in his third debate in six weeks, remained vague Thursday about how, precisely, he would translate his state’s job-creation recipe into a national economic policy. PHOTO: The 2012 Republican presidential candidates take the stage before a debate in Orlando, Florida, Thursday, September 22, 2011.|ORLANDO, Fla. ó Texas Gov. Rick Perry, in his third debate in six weeks, remained vague Thursday about how, precisely, he would translate his state’s job-creation recipe into a national economic policy.

“People understand that the state of Texas, the last decade, something special happened there,” Perry said, brushing off follow-up questions seeking details beyond holding down regulations and curbing lawsuits. Eventually, he promised, “you’ll see a more extensive jobs plan.”

Rival Mitt Romney was quick to tick off elements of his own plan, positioning himself as more experienced, thoughtful, serious and prepared to lead the country out of economic malaise ó from cutting corporate tax rates, to improving trade policy and imposing a “crack down on cheaters like China.”

“My list goes on in my 59 points,” he said, adding that “President Obama has done everything wrong. … I want everybody in America to be rich.”

Thursday’s huge 390-point stock market drop provided a sobering backdrop for the debate, before a crowd of about 5,000 Florida Republicans and a live national audience on Fox News.

And that was reflected with an immediate focus on economic policy. Rep. Michele Bachmann, asked about tax policy, hinted that if she could, she would whack the tax burden to rock-bottom levels. “You should get to keep every dollar that you earned … that’s not the government’s money,” she said.

The front-runners renewed their fight over Social Security, with Romney accusing Perry of pushing a doomed, ill-conceived plan to turn an essential federal safety net over to states that can’t afford the burden. Perry retorted that states often provide pensions for teachers and other state employees.

“That makes sense,” he said. “It’s an option we should have.”

Romney pressed ahead, citing Perry’s book, less than a year old, which argues for getting the federal government out of the pension business entirely ó something Perry seemed to be backing away from.

“You better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that,” Romney quipped, taunting that Perry is trying “to retreat from your book and your words.”

Perry, laughing at the fierce back-and-forth, turned to Romney. “Kind of badminton,” he said, mimicking a racket swing.

Romney again declined an opening to join the chorus of GOP candidates who label Obama as a socialist ó a stance some conservatives view as milquetoast, where they would prefer combativeness. “What President Obama is a big spending liberal, and he takes his inspiration from Europe,” he said.

Coming into Orlando, job-creation and immigration have been top points of contention between Perry and his rivals.

To a large degree, the governor has staked his campaign on boasts about Texas’ torrid pace of job-creation.

As for immigration, some conservatives have been dismayed to learn that Perry opposes a full-length border fence, which he views as ineffective, and signed a law granting in-state tuition to non-citizens brought into the country illegally as children, calling it a states’ rights issue and good local policy. Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum blasted Perry on that again Thursday.

Social Security has been another major flash point.

Romney has painted Perry ó who has implicitly threatened to dismantle or radically reshape the program for future retirees, by calling it a Ponzi scheme and a failure ó as too far from the mainstream to woo seniors and swing voters.

The subtext of Romney’s assault over Social Security has been to cast doubt on Perry’s electability. And in the run-up to Orlando, he set subtlety aside, calling Perry’s views “very disconcerting,” and challenged him to explain how states could ever afford to take responsibility from Washington for a retirement safety net ó as Perry advocated in a book published less than a year ago.

Perry has pushed back by linking Romney’s health care overhaul in Massachusetts to Obama’s. Earlier Thursday, he tweaked Romney for posing as an ordinary, middle class American, despite a $200 million fortune.

“Talk about stealing a play out of Democrats’ playbook. That’s class warfare,” said Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom.
Perry spokesman Robert Black denied that, saying Romney “called himself middle class. That’s just another example of Governor Romney trying to have it two or three ways.”

Florida’s early primary has itself proven a bellwether in the last four GOP elections.

The state’s high rates of home foreclosures and unemployment means voters here, especially, “want them to deal with the economy,” said Susan MacManus, a longtime Florida political analyst at the University of South Florida, in Tampa. It also means that railing at Washington ó a cornerstone of Perry’s appeal ó is losing steam.

“We’re starting to see some erosion in that. People want to just see something done,” she said.

The candidates warmed up for the debate at an afternoon rally with 3,000 social conservatives, led by Ralph Reed and his Faith&Freedom Coalition at a hotel near the convention center.

Bachmann, railing against gay marriage and citing the New Testament, argued that with Obama on the ropes, “conservatives don’t have to settle … for someone who’s just going to pat social conservatives on the head and not take our issues seriously.”

That was an obvious poke at Romney, who used his time for an economic appeal, promising to use his business smarts to shift America “from Obama-ism to greatness.”

The presidential candidates will speak Friday at a Conservative Political Action Conference event in Florida. On Saturday, Florida Republicans plan a straw poll, while in Michigan, Perry and Mitt Romney will speak at a GOP event. The next debate is scheduled for Oct. 11 in New Hampshire.

©2011 The Dallas Morning News|

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