CLEVELAND — Former Gov. Rick Perry, hungry for redemption but relegated to an undercard event, used his first appearance on the Republican debate stage to play up his differences with GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump — while driving home bullet points on his gubernatorial tenure.
"Nobody's done it like Rick Perry's done it," Perry said Thursday evening in his closing statement, offering perhaps the most plain-spoken rationale yet for his candidacy, with its emphasis on his decades of executive experience.
In an otherwise low-key affair, Perry pounced at the chance to explain Trump's national frontrunner status, likening him to a celebrity whose star will eventually fade. Perry also drew attention to the billionaire's past liberal positions, asking, "How can you run for the Republican nomination and be for single-payer health care?"
“We need a president that doesn’t just talk a good game, but a president that has real results," Perry said in another jab at the real-estate mogul.
After the debate, Perry and his advisers maintained his aggressive approach to Trump comes from a place of genuine outrage, particularly over the billionaire's derisive comments on the military service of U.S. Sen. John McCain. But Perry's campaign also welcomed the opportunity to use Trump as a foil on the issues of border security and job creation.
"Donald Trump is someone who's spent 14 seasons saying. 'You're fired,' and Rick Perry's someone who spent 14 years saying, 'You're hired,' in Texas," quipped Rob Johnson, a senior adviser to Perry.
The GOP debate was not only the first official one of the 2016 cycle, but also the first since Perry's 2012 run collapsed in embarrassment. On the stage here, Perry had few stumbles as obvious as the ones that punctuated his last campaign, though he at one point appeared to refer to former President Ronald Reagan as "Ronald Raven."
Perry shared the stage with six other lower-tier candidates, though he stopped short of criticizing any of them, reserving most of his ire for President Barack Obama. As his first act in office, Perry reiterated his pledge to tear up Obama's nuclear deal with Iran and "take a bottle of Wite-Out" to other executive actions by the incumbent.
In fact, Perry had more nice things to say about the other Republicans on the stage than he had criticisms. Answering a question about the nuclear deal, Perry nodded to South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham's position on the agreement and complimented former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, saying he would rather have her negotiating the pact than Secretary of State John Kerry.
Perry later said he had been surrounded on stage by "real class acts" and brushed off the idea that the event was a kind of a junior varsity competition. Perry campaign manager Jeff Miller expressed confidence the former governor would qualify for the next prime-time debate, which is being held Sept. 16 in California and will also base eligibility on national polling.
Miller suggested the two-tiered debate system may have given Perry more room to shine.
"What a great comparison," Miller said. "Fourteen-year governor with an incredible track record and a leader on the middle of this stage and a reality TV star in the middle of the other stage."
Minutes later, Perry himself downplayed concerns stemming from not making the cut for the later debate. Asked whether he won the undercard event, Perry told reporters he did not know but in any case is playing a "long game" in pursuit of the White House.
"This is the first date, so to speak," Perry said, "and before Americans decide who they're going to marry, there's going to be a long process."
Video: Watch debate highlights
Rick Perry on why he's ready to be president
Rick Perry vs. Donald Trump
Rick Perry on illegal immigration
Rick Perry on Iran
Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters