09.05.11

Rick Perry’s Debate Reality Check

The instant frontrunner could get roughed up in his first televised test against Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann. Howard Kurtz on the high stakes for the Texas governor in Wednesday’s GOP showdown.

Rick Perry soared into the political stratosphere from the moment he eclipsed Michele Bachmann’s straw-poll win by launching his presidential bid. But on Wednesday evening he could begin a slow descent back to earth. 

In short, we now get to see whether he can take a hit and keep on ticking. 

Perry will share a stage with his rivals in a debate sponsored by NBC and Politico, the first time that most voters will get to see the Texas governor mixing it up. Until now, he’s had the relative luxury of presenting himself to Republicans on his own terms.  

“He’s fairly aggressive,” says Wayne Slater, the veteran Dallas Morning News reporter who has questioned Perry as a debate panelist. “He never backs down, or rarely backs down. He’s going to try to look very confident. Sometimes he’ll smile and smirk. One of the problems with that is that it reminds people of what they don’t like about Texas—the perception of these arrogant cowboy-type guys. There’s a danger there.”  

But there is an opportunity as well. If Perry comes off as a strong, charismatic leader, he could cement the perception that he has seized the frontrunner’s mantle from Mitt Romney. And his lead in the polls—he was at 29 percent in a recent Rasmussen survey, compared with Romney’s 18 percent and Bachmann’s 13 percent—could prove more than a flash in the pan.

“He is a superior debater,” says Paul Begala, the Democratic strategist from Texas. “I think he’s got more political talent than anyone in the field, except potentially Bachmann. He’s way better than Romney.”

Of course, debates sometimes turn on intangibles. Does the candidate come across as likable? Can Americans envision him or her in the Oval Office? Will viewers be turned off by Perry’s Texas A&M twang after eight years of George W. Bush?  

Perry has his share of vulnerabilities, most notably a string of comments and passages from his two books questioning evolution, homosexuality, and climate change. Perry has called Social Security an unconstitutional “Ponzi scheme.”   

“He’s going to face the toughest questions over his comments on Social Security and some of his other crazy comments like Bernanke,” says Republican strategist John Feehery, referring to the governor accusing Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke of near-treason. “He has to try to seem more credible than he’s been to more rational Republicans.”

Dan Schnur, who directs the University of Southern California’s political institute, thinks the drama of the Reagan Library event may be overstated and that Perry can easily shrug off any attacks.

“The bar for Perry is not that high,” says Schnur. “As long as he doesn’t melt down in the face of his opponents’ challenges, the debate probably doesn’t do much to harm him. Perry doesn’t need a knockout to survive the debate. All he needs is a split decision.”

As for Romney, whose slow-and-steady approach worked fine when he was top dog in the race, “his challenge is to confront Perry without looking like he’s panicking,” Schnur says. “How he deals with Perry is going to be a major test for him. If he underreacts, voters may not see the fighting spirit they want in their nominee.”

The view from the Romney camp, not surprisingly, is starkly different. “The pressure has shifted to Perry now that he’s viewed as the frontrunner,” says Kevin Madden, Romney’s spokesman in the 2008 campaign. “When you’re the frontrunner, you can’t finish second in a debate. He has to outshine everyone in order to match the expectations.”

In a sign that Romney will keep concentrating on Obama-bashing, Madden rejects the notion that the former Massachusetts governor needs “a big strategic shift,” saying: “Republican primary voters are looking for the best nominee to beat Obama on the top issue, and that’s the economy. Romney needs to use these next three debates to keep his focus on jobs, the economy, and showing he’s the best nominee to prosecute that case against President Obama.” 

The hardest jabs will likely come from the only woman on the stage. “Bachmann’s got to start going after Perry because she sees him as an existential threat to her campaign,” Feehery says of the Minnesota congresswoman. “He’s got to be able to knock her back.”   

In a possible preview of Bachmann’s strategy, Keep Conservatives United, a super-PAC that supports her, has started running an ad saying Perry “doubled spending in a decade” in Texas and is borrowing money for deficit spending. The press has been picking over Perry’s 11-year record in Austin, but this is the first attempt by one of his opponents to portray him as less than a true conservative.  

While some candidates might be hesitant to directly attack a woman, Perry has experience in that realm, having trounced Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in a gubernatorial primary last year. And a look at their debates shows a man who knows how to put an opponent on the defensive.    

If Perry comes off as a strong, charismatic leader, he could cement the perception that he has seized the frontrunner’s mantle from Mitt Romney.

When Hutchison took aim at the state’s red-ink budget, Perry said: “I know the truth is sometimes hard to recognize when you’ve been in Washington for 16 years. The truth is that we have the second-lowest tax burden in America as a state.”  

In another exchange, Perry accused the senator of supporting sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants. He looked bemused when she said “Shame on the governor” for distorting her record. Politifact later concluded that Perry’s charge was false, but the damage had been done.  

The governor also knows how to defend a controversial stance, such as his championing of a law allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges—not likely to be a popular position in a GOP primary. “These are individuals who have been in Texas for an extended period of time in most cases, doin’ the work, being productive, and they are working toward their citizenship,” Perry said at one debate. “Absolutely, I think that is the correct thing to do.” (Romney, not coincidentally, has started boasting that he vetoed such legislation in Massachusetts.)  

One answer that may haunt Perry is when a moderator asked if he would commit to serving a four-year term in Austin. Perry tried to duck—“I’ve got a lot of faith in the Lord and hope he’s going to let me live for four more years”—but ultimately said he loved Texas so much that “Yes sir, absolutely” he would serve out his term. So much for that.

No single debate determines a primary campaign, and these encounters tend to be hyped by the press, which scores them like boxing matches. But the fact remains that Perry is about to be introduced to a national television audience—both Republicans craving red meat and general-election voters taking his measure as a potential president.

Perry’s views on such sensitive topics as Social Security may cripple him next year, says Begala, but for now “he knows his audience. He’s like a heat-seeking missile going for the heart of the Republican base.”