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09.21.11

Stopping the Perry Steamroller

The frontrunner for the 2012 nomination has dipped in the polls and faces a Google gauntlet at Thursday’s debate. Howard Kurtz on why Perry’s rivals need some fresh ammunition—and fast.

There are two wild cards in the next Fox News presidential debate. One is the presence of gadfly candidate Gary Johnson. The other is the Google factor.

While the GOP candidates gathering in Orlando on Thursday night will face questioning by a trio of Fox anchors, they also will have to respond to YouTube videos from ordinary folks, thanks to Google’s role in co-sponsoring of the event. And non-journalists tend to throw out very different kinds of questions, from softballs to curve balls.

But the real test will come when you Google Rick Perry’s name after the debate. If the hits show him on the defensive again, struggling to explain away aspects of his Texas record, then he will have hit a major speed bump in his path to the nomination.

Perry rocketed to the top of the Republican polls soon after his August plunge into the race, depriving Michele Bachmann of oxygen and eclipsing Mitt Romney as the front-runner. It’s no accident that Perry’s face looks out from the cover of last week’s Time magazine. He is the hot candidate of the moment—and yet the truth is we know very little about him. That’s why The New York Times saw fit to run a front-pager this week on his hometown of Paint Creek—where, as it turns out, some folks are worrying about being used by the one-time Democrat as “a bucolic backdrop for his self-promotion.”

But a memo to the White House and other Democrats salivating at the thought of running against a man who questions climate change and evolution: Be careful what you wish for. If the economy is in the toilet and President Obama continues to be seen as a lackluster leader, notes Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, “voters might well be willing to pull the lever for any alternative—even a Texan who boasted about shooting a coyote while jogging and suggested that Social Security is unconstitutional.”

That’s why this moment—and this debate, Perry’s third encounter with his rivals—is so important for the Texas governor. If he’s going to be slowed down before he cements his lead in the polls heading into Iowa and New Hampshire, his opponents are not going to have a better opportunity.

Perry took his share of hits in last week’s CNN debate, and a new USA Today/Gallup poll shows he has lost his big double-digit lead over Romney, with Perry now at 31 percent and the former Massachusetts governor at 24 percent. Bachmann has slid to just 5 percent.

Perry exudes confidence on the stage, but he had a tough time defending his “Ponzi scheme” rhetoric last week when Romney accused him of being hostile to Social Security—with tough language that the Democrats will undoubtedly replay if Perry gets the nomination. And Bachmann successfully slapped him over his push to inject 12-year-old Texas girls with an anti-cervical cancer vaccine—even if she was wildly inaccurate in portraying the shots as dangerous and linked to mental retardation. Perry struggled to explain, among other things, his acceptance of campaign donations from Merck, the vaccine’s maker.

If the questioning by Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, and Megyn Kelly produces more warmed-over sound bites on Social Security and vaccines, Perry probably won’t sustain much damage. The back and forth will seem like old news. The other candidates are undoubtedly trying to figure out how to broaden the indictment of Perry—a particularly urgent task for Bachmann, who has faded big time after winning the Iowa straw poll. The campaign will remain a two-man race unless she does something to change the equation.

If the questioning produces more warmed-over sound bites on Social Security and vaccines, Perry probably won’t sustain much damage.

But the debate also provides an opportunity for Perry to demonstrate that he is more than a gun-toting cowboy with a sharp tongue. He took a step in that direction Tuesday by staging a news conference in New York to rip Obama a day before the president’s speech to the United Nations. Perry said that if the international body endorses statehood for the Palestinians—which the administration opposes—the United States should “send a clear message to the U.N. that we’re not going to support you with our dollars anymore.” Such comments also send a clear message that Perry would like to capture his share of the Jewish vote. He’ll probably hit that theme again Wednesday in his first television interview of the campaign, with Fox’s Sean Hannity.

While the economy remains the dominant issue, Perry at some point has to demonstrate that he is a plausible commander in chief. If foreign policy plays a larger role in the Fox face-off than in past debates, that could help the top candidates broaden their attack on Obama—and distinguish themselves from each other.

There have been surprisingly few questions in these debates about the war in Afghanistan, which gives a pass to the candidates—other than Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, who want to bring the troops home. The others don’t differ substantially from Obama on a war in which Americans are still fighting and dying. There will probably be more talk in Orlando about Obama’s millionaires tax than his propping up the government in Kabul.

The Perry locomotive is chugging along full steam ahead, despite skeptical media coverage and Romney portraying him as all but ready to throw grandma out in the snow. His rivals will have another chance to slow that train on Thursday, perhaps with some random citizens enjoying a YouTube moment.