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09.08.11

Perry’s Smash-Mouth Debate Style

At the Reagan Library, Rick Perry showed he’s no shrinking violet, but Mitt Romney won’t go down easy. John Avlon on why things are going to get ugly as the GOP tests how far right it can go.

So much for the 11th Commandment.

At the start of the Republican debate at the Reagan Library, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry came out swinging, with the former Massachusetts governor jabbing the Texan as a career politician, followed by a Perry roundhouse that compared Mitt’s Massachusetts job creation unfavorably to that of Michael Dukakis.

Them’s fighting words—two steps removed from compartin someone Neville Chamberlain in conservative circles. And with them, Perry debuted his smash-mouth debate style, setting a Texas tone. Whereas Tim Pawlenty was famously reluctant to take a swing at Mitt onstage, Perry was unflinching and unsentimental. He was there to win, plain and simple.

But don’t expect Romney to give up his frontrunner status without a fight. He unleashed his well-oiled campaign on the Texas governor, arguing that Perry is unelectable in the general election, a novel but notably rational argument in a polarized primary process.

This was the debate that signaled the start of the real primary campaign—the GOP field is essentially set and the long, hard slog has begun. This is going to be ugly.

In addition to his admonition “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican,” the Gipper’s graciousness and crossover appeal was notably missing from the stage.

Ron Paul’s libertarianism might attract campus liberals, but his onstage musings about deregulating medicine and air-traffic controls had to make the casual supporter uneasy, as did his call to eliminate the minimum wage and his creepy accusation that TSA is involved in “all kinds of sexual activities.”

Newt Gingrich couldn’t wait to call President Obama a practitioner of “class warfare” and “bureaucratic socialism”—no trace of a happy warrior here, let alone the author of 23 books. Instead there’s just a smart man who seems content to slap conservative bumper stickers around and bask in the applause, just happy to be reminded of relevance.

Michele Bachmann found herself eclipsed by the rising lone star of Rick Perry, who has absorbed much of her conservative populist support by combining it with executive experience. Her debate performance fit the trajectory of someone who just replaced Reagan’s 1984 campaign manager, Ed Rollins, with an advance man.

Jon Huntsman improved on his lackluster first debate performance, warming up to reveal a charismatic candidate, building on his strategy of calling out the irrational extremes of his own party, setting out fiscal-conservative specifics, and rejecting all pledges other than the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s an approach that helps him stand out from the pack while connecting to the general electorate, but that’s not his audience right now. He still needs to show that these courageous stands can translate into traction in the polls from what’s left of the center right in the Republican Party. One percent one month from now will be a major problem.

Herman Cain and Rick Santorum gave polished performances, but their presence on stage already feels like an afterthought.

Halfway through the night, Perry said he felt like a piñata, given the number of swings directed his way, but despite a few awkward moments , the rookie frontrunner proved able to dodge and deflect. Team Romney is trying to argue that Perry is unelectable because of his “Ponzi scheme” accusations about Social Security, but the Texan just doubled down on the charge in response. He said he didn’t lose sleep over the 234 executions he’s presided over as governor, to audience applause. His criticisms of Ben Bernanke were adopted by other candidates, albeit in less vivid terms. Perry even felt confident enough to dismiss criticisms from his onetime rival Karl Rove and former vice president Dick Cheney, the former deans of the GOP. Romney’s book may be called No Apologies, but Perry’s swagger embodies it. For better or worse.

Perry even felt confident enough to dismiss criticisms from Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. Romney’s book may be called No Apologies, but Perry’s swagger embodies it.

Take a step back and consider how the party of Reagan has changed even from four years ago. At this point in the last election cycle, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani were dueling for first place and former Senate majority leader Bill Frist decided against a presidential run because there did not seem to be room in the broad center right of the field. Mitt was competing with Mike Huckabee for the social conservative vote.

Now Mitt is straining to establish his conservative credentials. Support for climate-change legislation was the near norm last time around; now it is verboten. No one dares run for the nomination if they are pro choice, like Rudy, and the federal marriage amendment has reestablished itself as the party standard. Support for the internationalism of the Bush doctrine seems in retreat and even Rove is warning about front-running candidates being too extreme. In perhaps the most damning evidence of the decisive rightward shift, Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll before Perry’s entry while her comparatively experienced and responsible fellow Minnesotan Pawlenty dropped out due to lack of support. Huntsman is called a RINO in this context, but he has a mainstream conservative record on social issues, and he’s the only one on stage to have worked for Reagan. In curious contrast, the two frontrunners, Perry and Romney, were not even Republicans during the Reagan era. Perry was a Democrat and Romney was an independent. Two converts, who critics accuse of political opportunism. Are trying to lead a party of true believers into battle.

There will be a half-dozen more debates before the first primary, with the next to be held on Monday night in Tampa. These televised fight nights will provide plenty of bruising political entertainment this fall, but don’t let the spectacle distract you from the real show—a party trying to determine just how far right it can go while still winning the White House.