The Texas Monthly welcomed Rick Perry to the presidential race with a piece called "The Great Campaigner." “Forget about death and taxes. Today, there are only two sure things in life: Every few years Rick Perry will run for office, and every few years Rick Perry will grind his opponents into dust.”
But in a striking turn of events, Mitt Romney is the one doing most of the grinding so far. In fact, his team has called Perry a reckless liar, and worse.
It’s an understatement to say it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Perry is the candidate with the 10-election winning streak, self-confidence that some past opponents say borders on arrogance, and aggressive campaign tactics that trounced Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in last year’s gubernatorial primary. Romney is the one with the blue-state background, substantial wealth, and two Harvard degrees, not to mention a résumé burdened with Romneycare, policy flip-flops, and some major political losses.
There are many possible explanations for how and why Perry dug himself into a hole. Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and former Hutchison aide who supports Perry, says the Texas governor and his campaign were consumed by fundraising in the seven weeks from his announcement to the Sept. 30 deadline for third-quarter donations. “You can’t do anything else without money. That was the first, most immediate hurdle,” Mackowiak says. He predicts that Perry will “turn on the afterburners” now that the initial money pressure is off.
Paul Burka, a Texas Monthly writer who has long covered Perry, says that so far “he’s certainly not the guy that we’ve seen in Texas. He doesn’t have the same fire or the same confidence that he had in Texas.” Burka wonders if a slow recovery from July 1 back surgery has thrown Perry off his game, and, like Mackowiak, he predicts the governor will bounce back to form. “When he gets in a race, he’s a killer. He just destroyed Kay Bailey Hutchison. They will sooner, if not later, just launch all these attacks on Romney.”
Some attacks already have started, in videos and speeches about alleged Romney flip-flops on his Massachusetts health law, the 2009 stimulus package, and even Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s contest for education grants. Yet Perry has yet to score a clean hit in a debate; instead he’s made unforced errors. Romney, by contrast, has effectively exploited every opportunity that has come his way, particularly Perry’s many years in politics, his inflammatory writings on Social Security, and his support for in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants.
Romney campaign emails—sometimes three a day—arrive with headlines like “Rick Perry: Reckless, Wrong on Social Security,” “Perry’s Problem With the Truth,” and “Perry’s Pinocchio Problem,” always topped with four photos of Perry through the years. The years 1984 to 2011, to be exact, Perry’s time in office, with the caption “CAREER POLITICIAN” in red block letters. A new video notes that Perry’s tuition position is shared by President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and former Mexican president Vicente Fox.
Jon Keller, a veteran political analyst for Boston’s WBZ-TV and radio, says Romney learned from his 1994 Senate loss to Ted Kennedy and was a better candidate when he won the governor’s race in 2002. Likewise, he says, Romney and his campaign have grown since his first presidential bid in 2008. One example: “They haven’t shied away from going for the jugular. They’re going right at Perry on Social Security and in-state tuition.”
Romney is usually less direct on the stump and in debates than the headlines on his emails and the dialogue in his videos. But he’s had plenty to say in a way that suggests the utility of his Harvard law degree. He has specialized in finding the weak spot in an argument, pressing for advantage in relentless, sustained fashion, and trying to do it in a way that doesn’t turn off the jury. Thus his “joke” in the last debate that “there’s a Rick Perry out there” saying the federal government “shouldn’t be in the pension business, that it’s unconstitutional … so you better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that.”
The next day, before a different jury—an audience of conservative activists—Romney veered right in responding to Perry’s comment that those who oppose his tuition policy are heartless. “If you’re opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a heart. It means that you have a heart and a brain,” Romney said. That’s not quite what Perry said—it’s safe to say he opposes illegal immigration—but the political point scored.
The Romney camp is also going right at Perry on his contention that he provides a stark contrast to Obama and that Romney is “Obama Lite.” Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom argued on MSNBC recently that Romney “offers a much clearer contrast” to Obama. Why? “Rick Perry and Barack Obama share the fact that they've held multiple offices, elective office offices. They've been in politics for a long time. Mitt Romney spent most of his career in the private sector.” Fehrnstrom added that the views of Perry and the president on tuition breaks for illegals are “essentially identical … So they are vastly more similar than different.” Most observers see the ideological and cultural opposites in the race as Obama and Perry. But it’s smart to challenge that.
Romney is clearly trying to beat Perry at his own game of hardball—if not with a knockout blow, then with continued pummeling. So what’s the downside? The tuition strategy could backfire by alienating Hispanics in a general election, but the impact may be small, since that group has been voting heavily Democratic for years. Todd Domke, a conservative strategist and analyst in Massachusetts, says the real problem for Romney is that his newly acquired skills feed an unflattering image of him. While his tactics are giving him wins in “day-to-day scorekeeping,” Domke says, they reinforce the impression that “he’s a phony, an opportunist, not someone who has convictions.”
To prove his point, Domke points to a new Fox News poll. Romney did snatch the lead from Perry, gaining 1 point while Perry fell by 10. Domke says the poll was taken after Romney’s best month in either of his two presidential campaigns. If Romney’s new skills are so effective, he asks, “where was the Romney surge?”
Unlike Perry, who has the potential to blow the roof off the nomination race, Romney has a practical game plan befitting a candidate who will never be beloved by the GOP base. As he put it on Morning Joe, you talk about what you care about and “hope the other guys stumble.” That may never produce a surge, but combined with some tactical savvy, it could make him the last candidate standing.