As Gov. Rick Perry prepares for his first debate as a declared candidate for the 2012 Republican nomination for president — the NBC News/Politico debate Sept. 7 at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif. — his opponents will be studying how he handled debates in his long political career in Texas.
The best example of Perry's control over Texas debates came in 2006 when campaign guru Dave Carney negotiated only one debate with Democrat Chris Bell, and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman. In his 2010 gubernatorial re-election campaign, Perry successfully refused to debate his Democratic opponent, Houston Mayor Bill White.
"I mean that's the only time I've seen Dave Carney in a campaign environment," Bell campaign manager Jason Stanford said. "He showed up, and they got exactly what they wanted. Except for Kinky Friedman being able to use a cigar."
Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News
Kinky may have kept his trademark cigar and cowboy hat, but the Perry campaign negotiated for the debate to take place on a closed set with no audience. So Friedman was unable to gain any momentum by getting people to laugh at his humorous campaign lines.
There will be no special treatment this time in the GOP nomination battle debates. Especially, Stanford says, from questioners who are examining Perry’s Texas record on a national scale. And from some Republicans who question policies the governor passed with little or no resistance.
"It's going to be hard for him to go up there and have to explain why he was the first governor in this country to sign the DREAM Act," Stanford said, referring to the 2001 law signed by Perry that allows students whose parents are in the country illegally to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities. "Him talking about immigration is going to be a fun thing to watch."
Perry’s participation in the debates — a second debate, the CNN/Tea Party Express debate is scheduled for Sept. 12 in Tampa — will provide multiple avenues of attack for the other GOP hopefuls. But that certainly doesn’t mean there’s no upside for Perry.
"I think a national debate is going to be easier for Rick Perry then a statewide debate might be," said Reid Wilson, editor-in-chief of National Journal's Hotline.
Eight people on stage means everyone gets less time to attack, less opportunity for mistakes and a better chance to sidestep questions.
"What he has to do is he's got to come out and stick to that message" Wilson said. "Whatever message he wants to deliver, he's got to say it and then reiterate it every single time. Bring every single answer back to that No. 1 response."
Wilson also points out that it’s early in the campaign and that Perry doesn’t have to be perfect. He can even stumble a bit and still have plenty of time to recover. Although the soft pillow he’s used to landing on in Texas won’t be at the debates in California and Florida.
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