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Fight Club: Intra-party Punches Thrown at the GOP Presidential Debates

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Huntsman and Santorum have delivered the most verbal attacks; Perry has received twice as many blows as Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Huntsman, Paul, and Santorum combined

rickperry11.jpgTwo days after her husband emerged battered from yet another debate, Anita Perry confessed in a speech at South Carolina's North Greenville University that, "We are being brutalized by our opponents."

And the data backs her up - even though the most recent New Hampshire debate found Governor Perry receiving fewer blows - and all largely glancing ones at that - compared to his first three debate performances.

Smart Politics content analyzed the four Republican presidential debates since Rick Perry joined the field and found that the Texas governor has absorbed far and away the most attacks from other candidates.

Perry has been singled out for criticism 39 times - about twice the combined total of Herman Cain (9), Jon Huntsman (5), Ron Paul (4), Rick Santorum (1), Michele Bachmann (1), and Newt Gingrich (0) and 10 more than Mitt Romney (29).

The following grid documents the cumulative attacks launched by each candidate against the others in debates over the past two months:

Number of Verbal Attacks Made and Received by Each Candidate During the Last Four Republican Debates (September-October, 2011)

Candidate
Bachmann
Cain
Gingrich
Huntsman
Paul
Perry
Romney
Santorum
Total
Bachmann
---
1
 
 
 
7
1
 
9
Cain
 
---
 
1
1
 
2
 
4
Gingrich
 
 
---
1
 
1
2
 
4
Huntsman
1
1
 
---
 
7
10
 
19
Paul
 
2
 
 
---
3
 
 
5
Perry
 
1
 
 
 
---
12
1
14
Romney
 
 
 
1
1
13
---
 
15
Santorum
 
4
 
2
2
8
2
---
18
Total
1
9
0
5
4
39
29
1
88
Note: Attacks made by each candidate are designated in rows; attacks received by each candidate are designated in columns. Data compiled by Smart Politics.

Romney and Perry, of course, have generally been the principle fighters in the most high profile debate battles to date, with Perry hurling 12 verbal punches at Romney since the California debate and Romney dealing 13 of his own against Perry.

The two candidates have each made only two critical remarks against the other six candidates combined throughout the four debates.

It was Perry, however, who started the war when he delivered the first attack of the evening during the California debate at the Ronald Reagan Library, directing the following critique at Romney:

"When he moved that experience to government, he had one of the lowest job creation rates in the country. So the fact is, while he had a good private sector record, his public sector record did not match that. As a matter of fact, we created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts."

Perry, who saw Romney as his main competitor, and Huntsman, who has been trying to tap into Romney's support in New Hampshire, are responsible for more than three-quarters of the attacks against the former Massachusetts governor.

Perry has his fingerprints on 41 percent of the 29 attacks against Romney, with Huntsman close behind at 34 percent (with 10).

Santorum, Gingrich, and Cain have each criticized Romney two times and Bachmann just once. Congressman Paul has not gone after the former Massachusetts governor in these last four debates.

Romney's 13 barbs against the Texas governor account for 33 percent of the anti-Perry comments, with every candidate except Herman Cain taking credit for at least one attack: Santorum with eight, Bachmann and Huntsman with seven each, Paul with three, and Gingrich with one.

Herman Cain, meanwhile, found that with a sudden rise in the polls comes increased scrutiny, and the businessman finally got a taste of critical rhetoric delivered by his fellow 2012 hopefuls in the debate on Tuesday, where he received nine attacks from his seven opponents - nine more than he had received during the previous three debates in Florida and California.

However, not all punches are thrown with the same velocity, and those directed toward Cain and his 9-9-9 plan were much more mild - and often lighthearted - compared to the ones Perry and Romney have received over the last several weeks:

"The cool thing about my plan, as opposed to Herman's plans and some of the other plans out here, it will pass tomorrow." - Rick Santorum

"I think it's a catchy phrase. In fact, I thought it was the price of a pizza when I first heard about it." - Jon Huntsman

"And one thing I would say is, when you take the 999 plan and you turn it upside down, I think the devil is in the details." - Michele Bachmann

By contrast, some of the most viscous jabs during the GOP primary debate season have been thrown by the candidate who is consistently trailing in last place in national polling - former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman.

Most of these attacks have fallen flat with audiences, even evoking groans at times.

(To Perry) "Well, first of all, let me say for Rick to say that you can't secure the border I think is pretty much a treasonous comment." (CNN/Tea Party, Florida I)

(To Romney) "I think we can spend all night talking about where Mitt's been on all the issues of the day. And that would take forever." (CNN/Tea Party, Florida I)

(To Perry): "Since this discussion is all about economics, Governor Romney, I promise this won't be about religion. Sorry about that, Rick." (Bloomberg, New Hampshire II)

Perry for his part has also delivered a few duds, such as this attack against Governor Romney in an attempt to play the 'flip-flop' card in the second Florida debate:

"I think Americans just don't know sometimes which Mitt Romney they're dealing with. Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it -- was before he was before the social programs, from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against Roe v. Wade? He was for Race to the Top, he's for Obamacare, and now he's against it. I mean, we'll wait until tomorrow and -and -- and see which Mitt Romney we're really talking to tonight." (FOX / Google, Florida II)

Overall, Huntsman has also delivered the largest number of verbal attacks with 19 - 10 to Romney, seven to Perry, and one each to Bachmann and Cain.

Santorum is close behind with 18, followed by Romney with 15, Perry with 14, and Bachmann with nine.

The three candidates who have most adhered to Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment are Cain (with just four attacks), Gingrich (four), and Paul (five).

And why is it that three candidates - Gingrich, Bachmann, and Santorum - have received only two attacks collectively?

In addition to the fact that none of these candidates are frontrunners, the soft treatment of Gingrich might be due to the fact that he is considered to be the smartest and best debater on the stage. In short, don't mess with Newt.

As for Bachmann, the gender issue could be in play - specifically that some view it to be more difficult for a male candidate to make the sort of harsh or sarcastic comments levied in debates against a woman - as the cool reception to Barack Obama's smarmy comments against Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire four years ago demonstrated.

As for Santorum, he is perhaps the fiercest attack dog of the eight candidates, as demonstrated by his willingness to not only go after early frontrunners like Romney and Perry, but also Cain (four comments), Huntsman (two), and Paul (two).

In fact, Santorum has levied nearly as many criticisms against these non-heavyweight candidates (10) as the other seven candidates combined (11).

While Huntsman has delivered slightly more attacks, but has focused nearly 90 percent of them against Romney and Perry.

As for Perry, losing the frontrunner status will likely cause his opponents to temporarily ease up on the "brutal" treatment to which Anita Perry referred.

Perry received nine such attacks in his first debate in California, 17 in the CNN/Tea Party Florida debate, nine in the FOX / Google Florida debate, and just four in the last debate at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

When Perry first started receiving these attacks in California he remarked:

"I kind of feel like the piƱata here at the party."

But by his third debate in Florida he seemed almost resigned to take this 'brutalization':

"Well, I feel pretty normal getting criticized by these folks."

As for the Romneys, don't expect Ann or Mitt to complain about the attacks he has received by his GOP competitors any time soon. They've traveled around this bend four years ago.

Republican Presidential Candidate Attacks Received by Debate

Candidate
CA
FL 1
FL 2
NH 2
Total
Bachmann
1
0
0
0
1
Cain
0
0
0
9
9
Gingrich
0
0
0
0
0
Huntsman
0
2
1
2
5
Paul
1
1
1
1
4
Perry
9
17
9
4
39
Romney
6
8
6
9
29
Santorum
0
0
1
0
1
Total
17
28
18
25
88
Data compiled by Smart Politics.

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