JOHNSTON – Texas Gov. Rick Perry – no stranger to debate gaffes – moved Sunday to capitalize on a self-inflicted wound that GOP rival Mitt Romney incurred with his “over the top” $10,000 bet during a high-stakes clash over health-care mandates during Saturday night’s nationally televised debate.
Perry, Democrats and political pundits painted Romney as a multi-millionaire who is out of touch with average Americans for seeking to challenge a Perry contention by proposing a $10,000 bet that the Texas governor was wrong.
“I think it was a very clarion moment in the debate,” Perry said during the taping of Iowa Public Television’s “Conversations with the Candidates” series slated to air tonight at 6:30 p.m. in discussing the much-discussed moment when Romney extended his right hand and asked the Texas governor if he’d wager $10,000 to settle a dispute over Romney’s healthcare record.
“I don’t have $10,000 to bet and I was a little shocked, frankly,” said Perry, who added that he suspected most Americans were “a little bit taken aback” by the size of the proposed wager.
“I’m kind of like – holy mackerel, that’s just a lot of money for most people and I guess not for Mitt,” he said, adding: “I’m right on that issue regardless of what he says. I thought it (was) a bit over the top to make a bet at $10,000.”
Romney’s camp saw it different. After the debate, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom likened the exchange to an argument that people have where one person backs up a position he feels strongly about with a financial wager.
“When Mitt Romney made that bet, he did so knowing that Rick Perry wouldn’t take it and by backing down, Rick Perry looked weak,” Fehrstrom said. “It was a very revealing moment and not a good one for Rick Perry.”
After Saturday’s toe-to-toe battles on the debate stage, GOP presidential contenders took their fight to the trenches in hopes to capturing crucial support heading into the state’s first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses Jan. 3.
“My guess would be that from now on it’s trench warfare,” said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford.
The candidates still have another face-to-face debate on Thursday in Sioux City as they step up their efforts to woo undecided Iowans in the campaign’s closing weeks.
“It’s make-or-break time,” said Chuck Laudner, a former Iowa GOP leader who is backing former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential bid. “If you don’t have any traction by next Thursday, you’re not going to get it, and if you have traction by next Thursday, there’s no stopping you.
“I really believe that in the next six or seven days the race will take the shape of the results that we’ll see on Jan. 3,” Laudner added. “By the time you get to Friday, Dec. 23, it’s probably in the bank.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the target of most of the barbs given his newly elevated position as front runner after Herman Cain dropped out of the race, but Romney also took his share of attacks from a field that includes Perry, Santorum and U.S. Reps. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota and Ron Paul of Texas.
“Gingrich is a pretty tough nut to crack. Maybe it’s because he’s so brazen about things,” said Goldford. “Nobody knocked him off his perch, so in that way I think he was a slight winner. I think the fact that — at least the first that he was in the dunk tank — no one hit the bull’s eye.”
Bachmann declared herself as the proven consistent conservative, referring to the GOP frontrunners as “Newt Romney” because “it’s very clear that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two of them” given their similar position on healthcare mandates, cap-and-trade energy policy, payroll tax cuts, the federal financial bailout and other issues.
Appearing on a network show Sunday, Bachmann said Gingrich has peddled influence in Washington for over 30 years. To think he “is somehow an outsider when he’s the consummate establishment insider, he’s the big-government candidate just like Mitt Romney,” she said, “doesn’t even survive the falling off the chair laughing test.”
Likewise, Paul told a national TV audience that Romney and Gingrich “come from the same mold, they’re about the same.”
Goldford said Romney’s campaign has approached the caucuses “like a team that’s been preparing for the Super Bowl that forgets they’ve got to make it through the playoffs. He’s beginning to realize that he’s got to get through the playoffs before he gets to the Super Bowl. The question is can he do that.”
R.T. Rybak, mayor of Minnesota, vice chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said the GOP field is not offering any fresh ideas during their “political scrums” by extreme candidates who have “high-jacked” a once-proud political party and are intent on “driving it off the cliff.”
“Iowa is a place with lots of weather vanes but even by this state’s standards Mitt Romney is setting new records for turning in the breeze,” he added.