Perry Heads Into Debate as Front-runner, Target

Governor Rick Perry talks about vetoing legislation while holding a pen onstage at the Electric Park Ballroom in Waterloo on August 14, 2011.
Governor Rick Perry talks about vetoing legislation while holding a pen onstage at the Electric Park Ballroom in Waterloo on August 14, 2011.

Gov. Rick Perry heads into tonight’s nationally televised Republican debate — his first on the presidential campaign circuit — as the front-runner. And with a target on his back. 

He’s had three weeks of superstar media treatment and a string of heavily attended fundraisers. But his opponents are circling, waiting for the opportunity the debate could provide to knock him down a notch. Perry, clearly anticipating this, went on the offensive Tuesday afternoon, sending out statements dinging two of his opponents, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. 

“He’s the kid on the playground with all the toys,” said GOP consultant Allen Blakemore, “and obviously, the others are unhappy.”

Tonight’s debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., is significant for Perry for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s a rare public performance he can’t orchestrate in advance. “It puts him on a stage the public really hasn’t seen him on, that Texans have rarely seen him on,” said Matt Angle, director of the Texas Democratic Trust.

But Perry has been sidelined in recent days by raging wildfires outside of Austin, forcing him to miss a dry-run candidate forum in South Carolina and, potentially, some of his own debate prep. Tonight he’ll be in the spotlight, where Republican strategist Mary Matalin said he has to trumpet his jobs record, dispel “unfounded negative notions” about his intelligence and depth, and show — now with a newsworthy example — that being governor requires considerable leadership skills. 

As of Tuesday evening, Perry spokesman Mark Miner said the governor intended to be at the debate, but he remained mum on his debate tactics. “We don’t discuss our internal strategy,” Miner said.

Longtime political observers say Perry would be smart to get into the good graces of the Tea Party by co-opting the messages of opponents Paul and Michele Bachmann, both Republican members of Congress. Matalin said Perry shouldn’t try to fake his way out of a “gotcha” foreign policy question: “No one in the field has superior foreign policy experience.” She said he should expect shots “coming from all directions” and should only take aim at his toughest opponent, Romney, “if there is a clear, clean and clever shot.”  

Paul Begala, a Democratic commentator and former adviser to Bill Clinton, said he thinks Perry will have these chances with Romney, largely because Perry “is a much better debater.” Perry, Begala said, debates with natural rhythm and flare; Romney "has canned lines he pays a lot of money for."

“I’m going to pop the popcorn and crack open a Shiner Bock,” Begala said. “This is going to be worth paying your cable bill for.”

If Perry decides to go on the offensive, he’d still be smart to do it with restraint, Angle said. “Perry’s biggest problem is that he can come across as very hot, as very inflexible and judgmental in a way that puts people off,” he said. “There’s an arrogance to it.”

But Blakemore said the format — a two-hour debate with so many candidates that none will get more than a few minutes of airtime — means no one has much time to get in hot water. “Rick Perry’s been debating a long time, and he can talk for 10 minutes without making a mistake,” Blakemore said. 

Even if Perry is largely playing defense, Blakemore predicted he’ll come out a winner. If his opponents feel obliged to attack him, he said, “it does nothing but prove the point that Perry’s the front-runner.”

On Tuesday, Perry's staff revealed some clues as to where he'll try to hit his opponents. They sent out one press release blasting Romney on his new 59-point job creation plan. They released another seeking to debunk Paul's portrayal of himself as a foot soldier in Ronald Reagan's conservative revolution. Political strategists expect Perry’s opponents to target him on immigration and border security and to try to expose him as a more establishment Republican as opposed to being Tea Party friendly.

If Perry learned anything from former presidential candidate and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who stumbled mightily in his second GOP debate and never recovered, Begala said, he’s studying up.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” Begala said.

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