Part of the fun of following the GOP field this summer has been the sheer abundance of candidates. But tonight it was really a two-man race. On the meaty questions, the camera and the conversation inevitably gravitated toward the two candidates who are way ahead in the polls: Mitt and Rick.
The pair took jabs at each other on the issues that will define the election: jobs and spending on programs like Social Security. Of the latter, Romney — clearly looking forward to the general election — promised, "I"ll keep it working for millions of Americans," and nodded to the question of electability. "Our nominee has to be committed to saving it, not abolishing it." Perry, for his part, stoked the fears of those worried that the program will inevitably run dry before they benefit: "If younger people expect that program to be around, they are wrong," he said, referring once again to the program as a "Ponzi scheme."
The Michigander and Texan clashed even more directly on the question of jobs creation, throwing in some loaded historical references for good measure. "Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt," said Perry.
“As a matter of fact,” replied Romney, “George Bush created jobs three times faster than you did, Governor.”
The rest of the field seemed, at times, like sideshows of varying interest: Michele Bachmann, who should theoretically have been riding the momentum of her surprising Iowa victory, was called upon only occasionally — to criticize Perry's gubernatorial stance on the HPV vaccine, to tout her bona fides as a mother, to land the occasional jab at Obama's foreign policy and to tout her own role on the intelligence committee. Her hair was bigger than it's ever been, and yet she was oddly diminished.
Ron Paul, too, was a lesser presence than in the previous debate. Herman Cain held up Chile as a model for reform, but otherwise spoke only rarely. Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, embraced his role as the éminence grise of the party, put out to pasture onstage before our very eyes. He was the only person preaching the gospel of unity, promising to throw his weight behind whomever was the nominee — without any pretense of it being him any longer. Jon Huntsman stood up once again for science and touted his general-election appeal, but his camera time was minimal (though his tan appeared to be nearly maxed out).
Romney took jabs at Obama. Perry cited Galileo, to dubious effect. The rest of the field took jabs at Perry, who said, "I kinda feel like the piñata at the party."
Check out our video below for the best of the Perry-Romney showdown moments and the rest of the candidates' digs at the pair, too.
This post has been updated with additional information.