By Luke Brinker
(Photo Credit: AP)
Rick Perry turned in a disastrous performance at last night’s Republican presidential debate. That’s not just the verdict of pointy-headed liberal elites. It’s also the consensus of the conservative commentariat. Perry’s inability to deftly handle questions about his moderate immigration record and the HPV vaccine order he issued in Texas, combined with his badly flubbed efforts to attack top rival Mitt Romney, led conservative pundits like Bill Kristol and Michelle Malkin to pan Perry’s performance.
Perry’s luster with the GOP’s conservative base has dimmed mainly because of his past departures from ideological orthodoxy (on issues like immigration and the HPV vaccine). Although greeted as a potential conservative savior – one with executive experience and Tea Party gravitas — upon his entry into the race, it’s becoming increasingly clear to hard-right voters that Perry hasn’t been with them on every issue. He’s not quite as new and shiny as he was six weeks ago.
Perry’s decline will benefit erstwhile frontrunner Mitt Romney – and that’s the irony of it all. Romney, after all, is nobody’s idea of a candidate with a squeaky-clean conservative record. While Perry drew boos from the crowd for his un-conservative policies on immigration and Gardasil, Romney underwent a dramatic ideological transformation ahead of his 2008 White House run. The formerly pro-choice, pro-gay rights, Reagan-opposing Massachusetts moderate is now a fervently anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, Reagan-idolizing conservative. His rhetoric isn’t nearly as inflammatory as Perry’s, so Romney is seen as the “moderate” in the race, despite conservative stances on virtually every major issue. Of course, not everyone believes Romney’s transformation was sincere. (Romney claimed that he changed his position on abortion and stem cell research after allegedly hearing a Harvard scientist cavalierly describe the process of embryonic stem cell work, but it’s implausible that that conversation also led him to change his mind on gay rights and tax cuts.) Perhaps because Romney’s conservative conversion was so transparent, voters take his impurity as a given. With Perry, however, conservatives may well see a dream dashed.