Editor's note: William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.
(CNN) -- Monday night's inaugural CNN/Tea Party Debate revealed more about the current Republican presidential field than we've seen in any previous debate. In the same way that the tea party has dramatically changed the course of national politics, this debate could change the course of the presidential race.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is strongly embraced by the tea party, revealed Monday night what one might call a moderate or liberal side on a number of issues, opening the door to potential conservative criticism or perhaps an embrace from moderates.
Picking up where the last debate left off, the battle lines were drawn early over Social Security. CNN's Wolf Blitzer wasted no time in teeing up a Perry versus Mitt Romney showdown over Social Security reform. Perry stood by his original Social Security remarks, calling the program "a broken system." He promised seniors that Social Security would remain intact under his watch, but said it needed real reform.
In response, Romney revealed a new aggressive and combative side that we've rarely seen before. Romney sharply attacked Perry's use of the term "Ponzi scheme," saying it is over the top, unnecessary, and frightens people. In response, Perry calmly replied that rather than scaring seniors, it's time to have a legitimate conversation in this country about how to fix Social Security. Round one went to Perry, but it quickly changed after that.
Michele Bachmann, founder of the Tea Party Caucus, was a crowd favorite all night. She moved to the right of Romney and Perry all night and made it a key point to emphasize personal responsibility over government oversight, winning loud applause from the crowd. While she refused to attack Perry's comments about the Federal Reserve, she pulled no punches when it came to his decision requiring girls to get vaccinated for the HPV virus -- saying it was "just flat out wrong" and "a violation of a liberty interest" -- and accused Perry of catering to big pharmaceutical interests.
Sen. Rick Santorum piggybacked off Bachmann's comments and dealt some of the toughest shots against Perry all night. Santorum, a longtime champion of individual liberty, said Perry's decision was "big government run amok," receiving loud applause. It was one of Perry's weaker moments, especially with the tea party crowd.
Another tea party favorite, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, did well with the crowd. Gingrich continued his narrative against the mainstream liberal media and shunned any attempt to criticize his fellow Republicans, while playing smartly to the tea party's vision of shrinking government to match revenue, not raising taxes to catch up with government spending, as he said.
The most revealing moments of the debate occurred as the dialogue shifted from economic issues to immigration and foreign policy. Perry found himself in the hot seat after staunchly supporting a Texas law that grants in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants, saying that immigration is a states' rights issue. He also criticized a border fence as unrealistic, saying, "The idea that you're going to build a wall from Brownsville to El Paso and go left for another 800 miles to Tijuana is just not reality."
Jon Huntsman railed against Perry, saying, "For Rick to say that you can't secure the border I think is pretty much a treasonous comment." Bachmann joined in and compared Perry's position on in-state tuition to the DREAM Act, supported by President Obama. And for the final blow, Romney said that Perry's immigration plan would only promote and encourage an influx of illegal aliens.
The topic of foreign policy was left for second-to-last and given only a few minutes of consideration, but the responses were noteworthy, and somewhat discouraging. Perry found himself awkwardly agreeing with Huntsman's call to bring home the troops in Afghanistan, while failing to put forward his own substantive plan on the Afghan war. Many on the right will be disappointed in what they heard Monday night, a day after the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
In the end, tea party favorites like Bachmann, Gingrich, Santorum and Herman Cain were the winners, though polls may not move much.
Perry was on the defensive all night and, despite his reputation nationally, he came across as "liberal" on some issues, criticized from the right on the vaccination issue, immigration, and Afghanistan. But some in the center might have warmed to Perry and some of his non-tea party stances. It remains to be seen whether his standing with conservatives will weaken -- at this point I doubt that it will. And once again, Romney was able to escape unharmed from a not-so-friendly crowd by shifting his attacks toward Perry and tacking away from some of his more center-right positions.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.