In Orlando last week, Romney and Perry stood side by side at center stage, Perry to Romney’s right. The second-tier Republican candidates fanned out to the sides; like us, they were an audience to the slugfest. By the end, Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor, remarked, “I’m tempted to say that, when all is said and done ... Romney and Perry aren’t going to be around, because they’re going to bludgeon each other to death.”
Romney came out determined to treat Perry like a yapping annoyance, a Rick Santorum. It was a savvy bit of gamesmanship, since Perry leads in national polls. “Nice try,” Romney scoffed after Perry threw a jab. “I’m not sure exactly what he’s saying,” Romney said later. Still later: “It’s an argument I just can’t follow.” Romney realizes his Republicanness is vulnerable to Perry’s attacks. His strategy, perhaps, is to claim he doesn’t understand Perry’s drawl.
Perry, the drawler, could hardly get his words out. Nobody could follow his arguments. Asked what he’d do if Pakistan’s nukes got loose, Perry stammered, “Well, obviously, before you ever get to that point you have to build a relationship in that region. That’s one of the things that this administration has not done. Yesterday, we found out through Admiral Mullen that Haqqani has been involved with—and that’s the terrorist group directly associated with the Pakistani country. So to have a relationship with India, to make sure that India knows that they are an ally of the United States.” Come again, partner?
It was a literary debate. With the (ghost)written word at stake, the candidates clawed at each other like Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy. Perry suggested, correctly, that Romney had disappeared a sentence from his book (the ironically named No Apology) between the hardcover and paperback editions. To a Perry sermon on Social Security, Romney countered, “It’s different than what the governor put in his book.” Back and forth they went across the library. “Speaking of books ...” Perry said, perhaps the only time in his life he has begun a sentence with those words. “I actually wrote my book,” Romney snapped back. By that point, even William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal would have dropped the literary pretense and started threatening to sock each other.
Perry rode in as the “real” Republican, Michele Bachmann without the baggage. But the square-offs with Perry (and other GOPers who ganged up on him) have had their effect. Onstage, he looks diminished. Being governor of Texas feels like a liability rather than an asset.
Before Perry’s entrance into the 2012 campaign, Romney seemed to be sleepwalking through the debates—a cautious frontrunner sitting on a lead. Perry has not only drawn the fire previously targeted at Mitt; he’s awakened Romney from his slumber. A deep cultural schism between the two men creates the friction. Romney versus Perry is Massachusetts versus Texas, wonkery versus bluff certitude, electability versus Tea Party purity.
Since 2008, Romney has been portrayed as a Republican who believes in nothing—“There are a lot of reasons not to elect me,” he admitted in Orlando. But Perry’s presence—plodding and reliant on banalities—makes Romney’s shiftiness look like virtue; at least he’s light on his feet. By the debate’s end, Romney was assuring the crowd, “I know what I stand for.” (All our eyes bugged like Perry’s.) Romney has found the Larry Bird to his Magic Johnson, the Cheech to his Chong, the man who can drive him to greatness. May the bludgeoning continue.