Last night’s Republican presidential debate yielded no shortage of memorable moments. Much of the next-day chatter has focused on exchanges over Social Security, HPV vaccination, and immigration. Yet within the middle of the debate was what I believe to be the most critical of the exchanges: the back-and-forth between Govs. Romney and Perry over jobs and the economy.
Consider the environment: polls are showing Obama’s job approval at record lows (over half disapproved in the latest NBC/WSJ survey) and his economic job approval is even worse at only 37%. Americans don’t think things are going to be better either within the next year, either, with only 22% of respondents saying that they think the economy will get better. Such economic pessimism is a new phenomenon for Obama. Even when unemployment was in the double-digits at its October 2009 peak, the plurality of respondents (42%) still thought things would be better in a year’s time. That “hope” has given way to a feeling of discontent, that things are not going to turn around any time soon.
Jobs and the economy are the top issue in the minds of voters. It’s also been the chief topic for both Romney and Perry and with good reason. It is clearly the biggest weakness President Obama has moving into re-election, and is likely to define both the primary and general elections.
In Monday night’s debate in Florida, Romney and Perry sparred over job creation. Gov. Perry has made no secret of the “Texas miracle,” where his state experienced job growth even as the rest of the country stagnated. It is this “Texas miracle” that is likely to be Gov. Perry’s greatest asset in the campaign, and Gov. Romney clearly knows it. As a result, Romney offered up one of the most memorable lines of the night: “If you’re dealt four aces, that doesn’t make you a good poker player.”
While Romney and Perry both have a lot to offer in the way of a jobs message, it will be interesting to watch the GOP electorate decide which type of job-creation experience it privileges: the experience of a Governor or the experience of a private-sector turnaround expert? Perry’s argument is that, from a position of governance, he was able to create the economic conditions to spur job growth. Romney’s argument, however, focuses less on his Massachusetts record and more on his time in the business world, arguing that what is needed is a Mr. Fix-It who can take bad situations and create growth. What will voters prefer: a strong in-office record or a strong private-sector record? Barring the a surge in the polls by one of the other candidates, this may be the critical policy question of the remainder of the GOP primary.